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book review

A sparkling, witty reimagining of ‘Hamlet’ starring an unborn baby

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When, in the fourth grade, I wrote an essay from the point of view of a pencil and sustained it for the assigned one scrawled page, I was astounded by my own cleverness. Fast-forward to Ian McEwan’s latest novel, which puts my measly number 2 Ticonderoga to shame. The narrator of “Nutshell’’ is an unborn baby at the end of his last trimester. And, oh the things he hears from inside the thick membrane of his mother’s womb. As an example of point of view, you can look no farther than these gorgeous pages, which not only prove that brevity is the soul of wit but also offer the reader a voice both distinctive and engaging.

Once somersaulting around in the amniotic fluid during what he calls his “careless youth,” the narrator is “now fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly” and eager to pass through the birth canal. Because his ear is pressed against the uterine walls, he’s privy to the BBC news hour, podcasts on fine wine, the audiobook of “Ulysses,’’ poetry, hints about the dishevelment of his mother’s house. This is the world into which he’ll soon be catapulted, “a less than united kingdom ruled by an esteemed elderly queen, where a businessman-prince . . . waits restively for his crown.”

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Most troubling, though, is that something is rotten in the estate of the Cairncrosses. The baby’s father, John Cairncross, an overweight, impecunious, psoriasis-plagued poet, has been banished both from his inherited Georgian pile and his pregnant wife Trudy’s bed, now replaced by his brother Claude. Sound familiar? Claude, a boor and a bore, lacking any touch of the poet, is a real estate developer given to clichés that continually insult the narrator’s genius-level language skills. (Has ever a fetus composed such glorious sentences, such ringing paragraphs?) From what the unborn can gather, his mother and uncle are plotting to kill John and take over the London house, worth 8 million pounds. Trudy and her brother-in-law hatch their murderous scheme fueled by bottles of wine. “I like to share a glass with my mother,” says the narrator. “I know that alcohol will lower my intelligence . . . But, oh, a joyous blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea . . . ”

What is a helpless fetus to do? Can he prevent fratricide? Can he reunite his estranged parents? It’s bad enough to suffer through the indignities of Claude’s lovemaking — “This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing . . . on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence . . . ” Wracked by to-be-or-not-to-be indecision, he clicks the umbilical cord like worry beads. Should he wind the cord around his neck and guarantee his mother the shock of a stillborn birth? But if he shuffles off his mortal coil, then he doesn’t get “to try my luck on a free-wheeling planet . . . I want to become,” he concludes.

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“Don’t let your incestuous uncle and mother poison your father . . . Get born and act!” he exclaims with Dale Carnegie resolve. The alternative is prison, boredom, the company of thugs, not to mention the prospect of endless daytime TV. What can he accomplish given his limited arsenal of well-timed kicks? Besides, if his mother and uncle succeed, will Claude accept the baby? “[O]nly in fairy tales are unwanted babies orphaned upwards. The Duchess of Cambridge will not be taking me on.”

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When a younger woman, an owl poet, shows up at the door with John, the stakes get higher. John proposes divorce; he expects to move back into his cash-cow house with the owl poet and evict Trudy and Claude. “I want him dead and it has to be tomorrow,” declares Trudy.

Aye, there’s the rub. More than ever the narrator must act. Can he warn his father? If too late, can he avenge him? And how?

The answers to these questions will keep the reader speeding through every page, each one rife with wordplay, social commentary, hilarity, and suspense. More delights abound. For the Shakespeare lover, there’s a Where’s-Waldo challenge of Hamlet references (including the title itself): palace intrigue, a ghost, the funeral-baked meats of Danish sandwiches and pickled herring. For the sex-scene aficionado, jaded by nothing-new-under-the sun ennui, there’s something new. Hats off to Ian McEwan. I’ve worn my Ticonderoga to a nub drawing a universe of stars in the margins of this charming book.

NUTSHELL

By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 197 pp., $24.95


Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at mameve@mamevemedwed.com