cover image Nutshell


Ian McEwan. Doubleday/Talese, $24.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-385-54207-4

McEwan’s latest novel is short, smart, and narrated by an unborn baby. The narrator describes himself upside down in his mother’s womb, arms crossed, doing slow motion somersaults, almost full-term, wondering about the future. His mother listens to the radio, audiobooks, and podcasts, so just from listening he has acquired knowledge of current events, music, literature, and history. From experience, he’s formed opinions about wine and human behavior. What he’s learned of the world has him using his umbilical cord as worry beads, but his greatest concern comes from overhearing his mother and her lover plotting to kill his father. The mother, Trudy, is separated from John, the father. John is overweight, suffers from psoriasis, and, perhaps most annoying for Trudy, loves to recite poetry. Trudy’s lover, Claude, is a libidinous real estate developer who covets both John’s wife and their highly marketable London home. Claude also happens to be John’s brother. Echoes of Hamlet resound in the plans for fratricide, a ghost, and the baby’s contemplation of shuffling off his mortal coil. The murder plot structures the novel as a crime caper, McEwan-style—that is, laced with linguistic legerdemain, cultural references, and insights into human ingenuity and pettiness. Packed with humor and tinged with suspense, this gem resembles a sonnet the narrator recalls hearing his father recite: brief, dense, bitter, suggestive of unrequited and unmanageable longing, surprising, and surprisingly affecting. 150,000-copy announced first printing. (Sept.)