Nutshell, the latest novel by the English writer, Ian McEwan, is the story of a thinking fetus, who has the opportunity to know his family before time and meditate whether or not to come into the world. McEwan does not believe in the deterministic equivalence of biology and biography and in this novel, which owes so much to scientific knowledge, he concede to an agglomeration of cells, to an organ added to a mother’s body, that much of consciousness, irony and wit which serve to build a destiny.
A prisoner of his mother’s womb, the “quasi-son” dreams of adult life as a mirage or an enviable bourgeois condition. Meanwhile, from his “private penumbra”, he transforms his state of imprisonment into a privileged perspective, scrutinising reality with the only means at his disposal: hypersensitive hearing, amplified by the resonance chamber of his amniotic liquid. He is able to accurately distinguish voices and noises of the outside world. Alternating his personal interpretations with more objective dialogues, the narrator informs us with disarming sincerity of his psycho-physical progress and of his growing frustrations in the face of the desire for a life of his own.
Son-to-be of separated parents, he discovers that he has an intelligent but naive father, an unsuccessful poet, a beautiful, indifferent mother, and an uncle who is greedy, insulting, and destined to become his adoptive father. As if that were not enough, the couple of lovers have illegally settled in central London, in the dilapidated but historic family residence, thus taking it away from the only legitimate owner, the natural father, who hopes to win back together his wife with the lost kingdom. In a domestic space as claustrophobic as the womb, envies and resentments proliferate, and the tragedy is announced.
The narrator becomes the only non-eye witness of an assassination and on this paradox McEwan constructs a captivating crime fiction, using a Shakespearean frame. Although, in fact, the literary genres seem almost extinct to the postmodern conscience of the unborn child – with the exception of verses that he listens with infinite melancholy from his father – the references to Hamlet are many and dosed with superb mastery in the fabric of the text. In addition to the explicit quotations of the title, or the imitation of entire scenes, the debt appears much deeper in the characters, who thus acquire a dramatic stature in the banality of the present time. On the one hand, Hamlet’s excessive awareness is reflected in the son, condemned to literally embody the quarrel between being and not being; on the other, the immoral conduct of lovers sarcastically resounds in their very names, Claude and Trudy, casts of the noblest Claudius and Gertrude. The reader perceives on every page a sense of tragedy, mixed with grotesque, thanks to the mechanism of the plot, but, as in Shakespeare’s theatre, also thanks to the meticulous artifice of words.
Continuing in the paradox, we discover that the child, in his desire for the future, is the only one to come out of the shell, showing a heartfelt concern for the fate of the world and McEwan nourishes his curiosity by making him listen, along with his mother, hours and hours of podcasts and radio programs. Inspired once again by Hamlet, the author invents a modern background noise, so that in the twenty-first century everything is “overheard”, grasped by chance or disclosed with malice as gossip in a Renaissance court.
So the disillusionment of the child ends up incorporating also the denunciation of the author who, perhaps not accidently, in this book stops believing in the miracle of birth. It will suffice to compare the ending with that of his most famous book, The Child in Time (1987) to see all the cleverness, but also the bitterness, with which McEwan describes the birth and the establishment/disintegration of a family. The microcosm of private love is not enough, therefore, to redeem the world from chaos, and in this the voice of the child and the author become confused. As the protagonist writes in his lucid letter to his father: “From where I am, you and my mother and the world, are all one. Hyperbola”.