Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

English teachers rejoice! If you have taught “Hamlet” and taught it well, you have given all of your former students an edge in reading Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. They will get all the jokes, and they will be grateful.

When he published Nutshell, Ian McEwan made no secret that, while the setting is 21st century London and the main characters representatives of the idle affluent, the plot of the book is the plot of the Shakespeare play: a son is appalled that his mother is sleeping with his father’s brother, the couple (successfully) plot to poison the father, the son struggles to figure out what to do about it, and all comes crashing down by the last scene. The mother’s name is Trudy (read Gertrude), the adulterous uncle is Claude (read Claudius). The strains of an Oedipal complex are many.

What turns this story on its head is McEwan’s choice for point of view. The narrator is the son himself, still in utero, who begins his soliloquy several weeks before his due date: “So here I am upside down in a woman.” And by page 3 the reader hears the essence of the problem as well as the echoes of the Shakespearean text: “My idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant…My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore, I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then to avenge it.”

McEwan does not follow the play slavishly. Instead he manages an elegant balancing act of making the story his own while honoring the original. For example, no ghost appears at the ramparts to begin the tale. The baby’s father, John Cairncross, is still very much alive. (But if a man’s home is his castle, then the father is certainly no longer the king of his castle, as his estranged wife has claimed it for her own during their “separation.”) The novel follows a conventional fiction, not five-act, structure: the first half leads up to the murder as the baby’s horror grows at overhearing his mother and uncle plotting and pulling off the plan, the second half carries us to the conclusion as the baby’s reflections and recounting reveal psychological consequences of the murder, leading to the murderous couple’s final undoing.

Freed from the need to build his own plot, McEwan makes the most of this luxury by putting on display his own exceptional gifts as a writer of fine prose and a sly sense of humor. Helpless to do anything in the face of the outrageous behavior of his mother and her lout of a lover, the baby wishes there might be another outcome, a thought that is probably no more than “a bleating little iamb of hope.”  (No, that is not a typo of “lamb,” but a clever visual metric joke.) The baby disdains his uncle’s mangling of language and notes his “impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading.”

So for anyone who loves playing with words as well as the plays of Shakespeare – echoes of “Macbeth” also run through the work – reading Nutshell is a pleasure. Although the book is relatively short, just under 200 pages, you will want to take it in slowly. You won’t want to miss any of the fun.

Yet there is a dark undercurrent as well. Although the action never leaves the “castle” and the baby’s only source of information is what he hears through the walls of the uterus, he hears plenty from sources other than the few people around him. Uncannily perceptive, the baby grasps from the BBC news on the ever-present radio that the early 21st century world he is about to be born into is a mess. Wars, famine, floods. Abject poverty. Tyrants with no heart. Refugees with no hope. Juxtaposing the scheming of the vain and selfish Trudy and Claude against the ills of the world makes a stark indictment of a certain class and generation in present day London.

Frankly, you may find you have more sympathy for the “fetal Hamlet” than you may have had for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Our fetal fellow does know what he should do to avenge his father’s death and bring his mother and uncle to justice. He is the agent of their undoing – but I don’t want to give away the ending.