In a nutshell, Nutshell by Ian McEwan is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. Honestly, I don’t know why I even finished it. I think I was driven by a perverse curiosity to learn what twist awaited at the end of the book. At times, I couldn’t tell whether it was satire, as this book definitely contains more than its fair share of absurdity. But along with that, it provokes important questions about consent, autonomy, and independence through a (at least in my experience) never-before-explored point of view.
McEwan, author of Atonement, published Nutshell in 2016. The book is told from the perspective of a 9-month-old fetus who, despite existing within another human being, possesses above average adult intelligence and full awareness of what’s happening in the outside world. The fetus learns from the audio programs its mother plays for it—BBC news, podcasts, audiobooks—and then provides its own commentary. The book is peppered with these philosophical musings and, after reading through them, I’d say this fetus knows more about today’s world than I do.
To demonstrate how strange this novel is, here is its first paragraph:
“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged.”
The fetus’s mother, Trudy, is estranged from her husband John and lives in their former home with his brother, Claude. For a large part of the book, John tries to win Trudy back using sappy poetry and unsuccessful gestures. All the while, Trudy and Claude plot John’s demise. One day, in a turn of events, John appears with Elodie, a younger poet he introduces as his lover. He tells Trudy that their marriage is over and that she has to leave their home because he intends to live in it with Elodie.
“We trusted each other, now we don’t. We loved each other, now I detest her as much as she detests me. Trudy, my sweet, I can hardly stand the sight of you. There have been times when I could have strangled you. I’ve had dreams, happy dreams, in which I see my thumbs tightening against your carotid arteries. I know you feel the same about me. But that’s no cause for regret. Let’s rejoice instead,” he says.
I really did not see this twist coming, but I thought it added a bit more excitement, a bit more unpredictability to a plot that had begun to slow down. At this point, a fuming Trudy decides that she and Claude must kill John the next day (of course, the only logical conclusion after her humiliation).
The pair carefully concocts a plan to slip John an antifreeze smoothie and make it look like a suicide. Honestly, this part was more humorous than ominous, and the thought of an antifreeze smoothie made me laugh. Their plan initially succeeds when Trudy convinces him to drink and he drives away, only to be discovered dead on the side of the road later that day.
After learning of John’s death, Trudy and Claude contemplate their newfound freedom—freedom from John, freedom to be with each other—yet also see the foundations of their relationship grow shaky with the infusion of guilt.
The police come to question them about John’s death, and they think they’re going to get away with it until the chief inspector names them as suspects. Trudy and Claude decide to flee, but as they are packing, the fetus, in a desperate attempt to delay their departure and bring Claude down for his brother’s murder, claws its way out of the womb. Yes, you read that right—he punctures the amniotic sac with his fingernails so that Trudy is forced to go into labor.
At that point, the fragility of Trudy and Claude’s relationship is revealed; he tells her he’ll call her an ambulance, but he has to leave her behind. She tells him she hid his passport, so he can’t leave until he helps her deliver. In a bind, Claude helps her through the birth, and there is a single, serene moment before the police arrive at their door. And that’s the end of the book.
It’s clear that the premise of this book is absurd, and not really in a good way. The fetus possesses an unrealistic vocabulary, although it’s difficult to single out its vocabulary to critique given that being inside the fetus’s head is unrealistic to begin with. Often, the language was too pretentious to take seriously (maybe that’s the point? Is this whole book satire?)
To that point, the book includes a degree of dark humor. Our main character is a wine enthusiast with a craving his mother frequently satisfies. In one particularly drunken moment, the fetus contemplates pulling on the umbilical cord for service.
“After a piercing white, a Pinot Noir is a mother’s soothing hand. Oh, to be alive while such a grape exists! A blossom, a bouquet of peace and reason… The hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009,” the fetus thinks, mimicking the most cliché wine “expert.”
Some of the most disturbing parts of the book come when Trudy and Claude have sex, the fetus an unwilling participant and internal observer. At one point, the fetus even begins to wrap the umbilical cord around its neck just to make it all stop, but his instinct to live prompts him to loosen the cord before the point of no return. The idea of observing such an act from such an intimate position, feeling every motion and hearing every sound, all without consent or desire, struck an uncomfortable nerve with me.
I’m not sure how this book holds up in light of recent anti-abortion legislation. The reader can’t help but think of the fetus as a baby. Is that McEwan’s point? To say that it’s unfair and unethical to deny the fact that fetuses have rights, personalities, and desires? Or was that just an unintended consequence of the book’s premise? Of course, nine months pregnant is very far along, but I don’t love the idea that this book intentionally or unintentionally perpetuates—that fetuses are conscious and learning and as human as any adult throughout their entire gestation.
Ian McEwan has had a prolific writing career, which makes it even more upsetting that he has arrived at this novel. Atonement made me feel a whole range of emotions, but the most this novel made me feel was unsettled and morbidly curious to learn how the plot would wrap up.
Read this book only if you’re enthusiastic about weird. Read this book for immersion into some twisted interpersonal relationships. Read this book only if you’re okay with the lack of a single likable character. Read this book only if you’re ready for a mindfuck. Read this book at your own risk.