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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fiction (2016)
Nutshell is a classic story of murder and deceit, told by a narrator with a perspective and voice unlike any in recent literature. A bravura performance, it is the finest recent work from a true master.

To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavour, is just a speck in the universe of possible things.

208 pages, Hardcover

First published September 1, 2016

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About the author

Ian McEwan

128 books15.7k followers
Ian McEwan studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970 and later received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany's Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). He was awarded a CBE in 2000. In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Saturday and his novel On Chesil Beach was named Galaxy Book of the Year at the 2008 British Book Awards where McEwan was also named Reader's Digest Author of the Year.

McEwan lives in London.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,305 reviews
Profile Image for Warwick.
842 reviews14.6k followers
September 12, 2016
The start of this book feels like McEwan in elder statesman mode, sitting down at his laptop, rolling up his sleeves and saying, ‘Right, out the way, fuckwads, let me show you how it's done.’ It's so conspicuously brilliant, so controlled and aware and unusual, that although the rest of the book can't quite sustain the ferocity of the first fifty pages, still this rarely felt like it was going to be be getting less than full marks from me.

Nutshell is a sly contemporary version of Hamlet, where the infidelity between ‘Trudy’ and her brother-in-law, ‘Claude’, is observed not by a teenage prince but by a nine-month-old foetus two weeks away from his due date. This may seem like a youngish choice, as narrators go, but McEwan's prepartum protagonist is a joy of a companion – witty, eloquent, someone who enjoys a nice glass or two of Sancerre ‘decanted through a healthy placenta’ and who has plenty of time and material for contemplative flights of fancy: ‘my thoughts as well as my head,’ he notes, ‘are fully engaged.’

I'm immersed in abstractions, and only the proliferating relations between them create the illusion of a known world. When I hear ‘blue’, which I've never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that's fairly close to ‘green’ – which I've never seen. I count myself an innocent, unburdened by allegiances and obligations, a free spirit, despite my meagre living room. No one to contradict or reprimand me, no name or previous address, no religion, no debts, no enemies. My appointment diary, if it existed, notes only my forthcoming birthday. I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are now saying, a blank slate.

The phrase-making is lovely on every page of this book; nothing jars, no word is out of place, no odd juxtapositions leave you wishing the manuscript had been scanned by an editor one final time. ‘In heavy rains the drains, like dependable banks, return their deposit with interest’ – this is the sort of thing he tosses off in the middle of a paragraph – or dubbing the repeated exclamation unless ‘a bleating little iamb of hope’. We are invited to look forward to ‘the dim-lit gore of the delivery room’, and induced to think of the unborn as ‘po-faced stoics, submerged Buddhas, expressionless’. One finds oneself finishing a page and then skipping back to the top, ostensibly to double-check some plot-point, but really just to enjoy it all a second time.

But the main pleasure is in seeing how well McEwan makes use of his gimmick to come at every scene from a new angle.

When I hear the friendly drone of passing cars and a slight breeze stirs what I believe are horse chestnut leaves, when a portable radio below me tinnily rasps and a penumbral coral glow, a prolonged tropical dusk, dully illuminates my inland sea and its trillion drifting fragments, then I know that my mother is sunbathing on the balcony outside my father's library.

The new perspective it allows us on sex scenes is fully and alarmingly explored, in a series of encounters that are by turns hilarious, moving and horrific:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose. By this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls. […] On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he'll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality. Then, brain-damaged, I'll think and speak like him. I'll be the son of Claude.

I mean I could go on just quoting paragraphs I thought were remarkable, but these are so numerous that the review would start to be conterminous with its subject. Suffice to say this is a book to be enjoyed on a sentence-by-sentence level – and along the way McEwan finds time to reflect on climate change, religious extremism, social justice warriors and identity politics, not to mention throwing in a load of cheekily unmarked Shakespearean quotes, some of which I caught and many of which I probably missed.

Overall, and contrary to my vague memories of McEwan (a writer I don't know well), the general tone here is cautiously upbeat. Although the story being told is, famously, a tragic one, still the message that emerges from the text is that telling stories about tragedies is our best hope of dealing with them. After all, beyond an occasional kick, there's nothing our narrator can do to act on or influence events; what he can do is think about them, analyse them, talk about them, play with words and ideas and concepts. Perhaps it's through this process that tragedy can become something transcendent – a suitable subject for world literature. As our embryonic hero puts it, ‘God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.’
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews598 followers
November 18, 2019
Isn't that what everyone says to themselves when they read this?

It's so original, that I'm almost surprised it has not been written until now.
There is beautiful prose --- and then there is BEAUTIFUL PROSE!!!! I'm a little flabbergasted. I've been an Ian McEwan fan from way back...but this little slim book blows my mind. I think it's pure genius. Genuinely - I could not have loved this 'creation' more. I will definitely read it again.

I don't study Shakespeare- (my daughter did her entire childhood) -- but the opening quote by Hamlet at the start of Ian's book has a 'much more' profound meaning to me now - since reading this exceptional brilliant novel.
"Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King of infinite space--
were it not for bad dreams".

'Every page' was equally enjoyable, and thought-provoking. I read with so much pleasure from the very first sentence to the last.

The fetus hears all. 'He/She' pays attention. His ( for lack of a better way of doing this - I'll just refer to the fetus as 'He')... mother, Trudy, may drift off during a lecture - or listen random to podcasts, but not he. He will stay awake to listen and learn.
Even through his mother's bones he can encounter a bad dream in guise of a formal lecture.
He's learns about the state of the world: problems in the Middle East, sexual sickness,
bigotry, torture, anti-Semitism, obesity, murder, children dying, thousands by the week, drug problems, clean water, inequalities of wealth, cancer, tsuanami...free speech no longer free.... more corruption and destruction....
Kinda a heavy for an unborn child - don't ya think?
And then there are more personal concerns closer to home. His parents- John is his father- are separated, and his mother has a lover named Claude.
How does a fetus calm itself?
"Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads".

LOTS TO WORRY ABOUT .......being born today!
Profile Image for Debbie.
454 reviews2,891 followers
November 16, 2017
OMG OMG OMG! This book really did knock my socks off. In fact, it goes on my all-time favorites list. Who could resist this bizarro opening line?

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.

Okay, so there are some very good writers who can give you very good characters and very good metaphors and a very good plot with very good prose.

And then there's Ian McEwan. A genius. This guy, he's in a league of his own. His word play, his creativity, his sophistication, his insights, his descriptions of the little unnoticed things that snap me to attention. His language is artful and funny, incredibly cool and dance-y. He’s an amazing storyteller.

This dark and edgy story told by a soon-to-be-born fetus is so clever and bizarre, I just dove right in, trusting that McEwan would give me a trip to remember, and that he did. Please don’t cringe—the fact that the story is told by a fetus is not to be taken seriously. Mostly, guys, it’s just an incredibly brilliant way to get an original and fascinating omniscient author into the story. Our little fetus is a first-class eavesdropper. And believe me, he is nothing like a fetus—he’s more like an erudite, sometimes grumpy, old man with a killer vocabulary. He’s wise beyond his non-years, and is, of course, concerned about his safety (his mother is a total lush). He’s also endearing, brilliant, super observant, curious, cynical, and very funny. This isn’t fantasy, I promise—it’s absurdist fiction at its best. Think The Metamorphosis by Kafka.

What’s happening outside the womb is a scheme that his mother and her lover cook up, both of whom are super unlikeable. The narrator has a field day describing the crime, and there’s suspense as we wait to see if they get caught. The pacing is good.

That said, this was a slow read, and that’s because I often wanted to reread sentences. Sometimes I reread because I just wanted to--every sentence is jazz, so I played the record a couple of times, loving the tone and the rhythm. Sometimes I reread because I needed to concentrate more to comprehend the full glory. There were lots of new words for me, and of course I had to check out definitions. It is a short book, so for fast readers with less pit stops it should be a quick read. I want to say this is an intellectual book, which usually is not a plus for me. Here, I was mesmerized. McEwan manages to be philosophical without being pedantic or lecture-y.

There were maybe three times when McEwan did pontificate a bit (there were a few pages on the structure of poetry, for instance), but I was so in love with his prose and his story I didn’t give a damn. And oh my god, what a lot of highlighting I did.

Here’s some cool philosophy, McEwan showing his serious side:

Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.

And here are a couple womb-related sentences that cracked me up:

Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads.

Not everyone knows what it is like to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.

I want jazz, I want percussion, I want language that plays wildly in my head as well as my heart. I want to be wide-eyed and hanging on every word. This book delivered. I now have to read all of his books, end of story.

Well . . . almost. When, nice and drowsy for once, I closed this book, I saw a fucking spider walking across my sheet. A spider! In my BED! Oh god!!! Something in my advanced age I had luckily never ever seen before. And it wasn’t tiny—it was the size of a dime. This woke me the fuck up! Shivering with fear, I leapt from my bed, got some toilet paper, and squished it to death. And no, I wasn’t proud of my killer instincts but I was on automatic. Spider in bed, must die! Then I thought of all the terrifying what-ifs. What if it had already bitten me (god, had it actually been strolling across my SKIN!!!??) and I would soon be in severe pain or itch-land? What if it’s a momma who just delivered babies near my toes and she was just going to search for chow, some mite bites. (Which means, oh the poor babies, I’ve murdered their mother. But worse, do I have a spider family sharing my bed and about to creepy-crawl all over me?) What if her man is resting in my covers, and forlorn and suspicious when wife-y-poo doesn’t return, he decides to attack? Then into my mind popped this question: what if the spider wants to talk about his arduous trek and the awful giant who squished him? Or what if the poor abandoned baby spider needs to tell her traumatic story? So just maybe it’s time for a spider narrator. . . .
Profile Image for Adina .
889 reviews3,536 followers
October 25, 2016
Update 2: I found another interview with the author in a podcast. I had no idea McEwan is so funny. People at work were probably wondering why I was giggling while listening to this. Recommended!(it starts at minute 26 after the interview with Margaret Atwood).

Update: I found an interview of the author regarding the novel, how he got the idea to write it and where it stands in relation to his other works. https://www.facebook.com/vintagebooks...

McEwan writes one of his best novels as an original and loose retelling of Hamlet, just in time for the commemoration of 400 years anniversary from Shakespeare’s death. The unique vision comes from the narrator, a fetus in the last few weeks of his in utero life stage.

Trudy (Gertrude) and Claude (Claudius) have murder on their minds. Trudy betrays her husband, John, with, you guessed it, his brother Claude. A poet and an owner of small publishing house which not going very well; John has inherited an old but valuable mansion which is enough to spark the murderous imagination of the two lovers. The unwilling witness to the wicked schemes is the unborn baby of Trudy and John, the unnamed Hamlet. From his mother’s womb, he hears and feels everything.

This is not strictly a crime novel. Although it has as main plot a villainous plan, the joy of reading this novel come from the witty, contemplative, funny reflections of the in utero narrator. Though some might be skeptical of the fetus omniscient level of thought and speech I thought it worked very well here. Fueled by the radio podcasts played by his mother, the narrator launches himself in various meditations on the world affairs, religious extremism, climate change, armed conflicts and other current subjects.

"Psychopaths are a constant fraction, a human constant. Armed struggle, just or not, attracts them. They help to tip local struggles into bigger conflicts. Europe, (…) in existential crisis, fractious and weak as varieties of self-loving nationalism sip that same tasty brew. Confusion about values, the bacillus of Anti- Semitism incubating, immigrant populations languishing, angry and bored. "

"Free speech no longer free, liberal democracy no longer the obvious port of destiny, robots stealing jobs, liberty in close combat with security, socialism in disgrace, capitalism corrupt, destructive and in disgrace, no alternatives in sight."

It has to be said that the narrator is a bit of a snob and some of his opinions are not entirely PC and his opinions of British middle class might be harder to stomach by some.

When he is not discussing world affairs he is contemplating his state in the womb, the feelings for his creators and his poor fate when he will have to face the world outside.

Our fetus is also a wine connoisseur. During his sojourn in the womb he enjoys quite a few glasses of wine. Instead of being appalled by the idea that a fetus is intoxicated by his irresponsible mother, the incredible skill of McEwan made me sympathize with the child’s joyous drunkenness. I might have also poured myself a glass of Marlborough when it was mentioned somewhere in the novel. It might not be the narrator’s favorite but it is mine.

"I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta. Even before the wine arrives—tonight, a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre—at the sound of a drawn cork, I feel it on my face like the caress of a summer breeze."

The unique condition of the narrator allows for some disturbing sex scenes, witnessed from a perspective that is not very often encountered in literature.

"Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose. By this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls. […] On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he'll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality. Then, brain-damaged, I'll think and speak like him. I'll be the son of Claude."

Ian McEwan is in this novel at the highest level of his world play. It should be enjoyed sentence by sentence, word by word. I found myself many times re-reading the sentences in order to fully absorb their brilliance.

I could go on forever praising this novel and quoting from it but I will stop now. Suffice to say that it is wonderful, a great read for any of McEwan’s fans and a good starting point for those who never tried his work. Do not be put off by the narrator’s perspective, you do not need to be a fantasy reader to enjoy this.

Many thanks to Ian McEwan, Random House/Vintage, and Netgalley for this copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,781 reviews14.2k followers
August 9, 2016
A book that is narrated by an eight month old fetus. He describes what he see and hears, from his father and his love of poetry to the nefarious plans of his mother and his uncle, his father's own brother.

So why did I have such a disconnect with this book? The writing is wonderful, amazing in places. Was it that I had a hard time envisioning a fetus using this level of thought and speech? Not sure, though I did find myself occasionally shaking my head at the thought especially since I am not a fantasy lover, maybe I had a hard time going there?. I do admire the originality of the author's vision though. I think what frustrated me the most was all the thought side trips, just a little too much going astray here and there. This is definitely one intelligent fetus. Sometimes though, less is more and that is really how felt. It was just too much. Still I was glad of the experience of reading this very original story and ingesting this author's amazing prose.

ARC from Netgalley.
Profile Image for Trin.
1,842 reviews565 followers
September 10, 2016
A modern retelling of Hamlet, narrated by the infant prince from inside his mother's womb. It is every bit as insufferable as that sounds.

Ian McEwan is one of those writers who, having been crowned an author of literature, thinks he can write any piece of cracked-out nonsense and know it will be treated as a serious work. Is he taking the piss? Who knows. What I do know is: this book is a joke. I've liked other works of McEwan's, although even my favorite, Sweet Tooth, contained elements that were highly problematic -- gotta love that nasty streak of British misogyny! But really he just writes hammy melodrama, often punctuated by a "twist," and dresses them up with pretentious prose. At his worst -- which this is -- he is absolutely the M. Night Shyamalan of authors.

McEwan's main conceit -- the narrating from the womb thing -- is pretty stupid, but not entirely unworkable. Here's the first paragraph to Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum:

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I'm begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith's Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep -- as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.

Energy! Verve! Humor!

In contrast, here's the opening paragraph to Nutshell:

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. I've no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I'm troubled. I'm hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I'm terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

Oh my god. Where's Laertes to put him out of his misery already?

There are only 197 pages of this solipsistic shit, but it feels like a thousand. I'll admit it: I knew I would loathe this book by the time I had finished the above paragraph, but I hate-read it all the way to the end. I wanted to be thorough and complete in my disdain. But I can save you the trouble. In a nutshell: what a piece of crap.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,192 reviews1,816 followers
December 6, 2020

Bay Leung.

Shakespeare nel XXI secolo, l’Amleto adattato al terzo millennio.

Chiaro che qualche aggiustamento è richiesto: e quindi, in questo caso, Amleto, oltre a non essere principe, è figlio di un editore di poesie e lui stesso poeta, non di un re. E soprattutto questo novello Amleto deve ancora nascere.
È proprio lui che parla e racconta in prima persona, e lo fa da dentro la pancia della mamma, avvolto nella placenta.
Sua mamma si chiama Trudy, quella di Amleto Gertrude, e il di lei amante è ovviamente lo zio, cioè il fratello del padre, che si chiama Claude, invece di Claudius.
Cupidigia, tradimento, assassinio, vendetta.
Londra, invece di Danimarca. E perciò, c’è del marcio a Londra.

Ma come può essere marcio chi non è ancora nato? Un nascituro, un feto non è forse quintessenza d’innocenza e purezza?
Direi di no: questo futuro bimbo vede e sente e commenta come un essere (umano) navigato, qua e là anche un po’ sapientino.
Altro aspetto che differenzia il breve romanzo di McEwan dalla tragedia di Shakespeare è che là il delitto è già compiuto, Amleto viene chiamato dal fantasma del padre a vendicarne l’omicidio, qui invece deve ancora essere consumato, è in preparazione. E il piccolo “innocente” non riuscendo a impedirlo, ne diventa suo malgrado complice.
Anche se poi…


Il talento di McEwan si conferma anche in questa nuova prova, più leggera del solito, da lui stesso definita in un’intervista “una vacanza”, un capriccio. Talento, e abilità, e prosa elegante.

Come dicevo sopra, questo esserino in fieri è l’io narrante. E questa finta autobiografia è utile per convincere il lettore che la storia non sia frutto di fantasia, ma sia vera, straordinaria per quanto si racconta ma realmente successa, accaduta.
L’io narrante non dovrebbe vedere, visto che è dentro la pancia della mamma. E così ci conferma, la sua visuale è limitata. Anche sentire non è sempre facile.
Eppure, per essere un feto ha vista e udito lungo.


Qui e là è una voce che la sa davvero un po’ troppo lunga, anche più di un adulto ‘normale’: la sa lunga come uno scrittore navigato, di quasi settanta anni, grande mestiere, lungo curriculum, premi vinti, consapevolezza ed eloquio.
Disserta di sessi e generi sessuali, di religione e secolarismo, di scienza e teoria, esprime considerazioni profonde su etica, coscienza, identità, istinto:
È un feto che ha già l’acquolina per le aringhe, si appassiona ai discorsi sulla metrica delle poesie, ha visione precise di un corteo di soldati esausti, dai pennacchi flosci, è già esperto di vini francesi e whiskey di malto, ama la campagna e la comodità borghese di una bella dimora in pietra che sembra un’abbazia immersa nel verde.
Viene quasi da pensare che il vero guscio sia la casa a Straud, nella campagna del Gloucestershire, e il feto non sia altro che il buon vecchio Ian.


Non il McEwan che conoscevo, non il McEwan che preferisco, quello degli inizi, cupo strano inquietante, né quello successivo del successo mondiale, ben più realistico e meticolosamente documentato. Ma ugualmente, chapeau! Per la suspense, per come sa trasformare una storia abusata in qualcosa di nuovo e frizzante, per la vena da autentico giallista, con cura dei particolari, dalla scelta del veleno al corpo del reato, l’inghippo nel piano, gli ospiti intrusi, l’interrogatorio che nel suo genere è un piccolo capolavoro.

Non sono in tanti a sapere che cosa significhi ritrovarsi il pene del rivale del proprio padre a pochi centimetri dal naso. A questo stadio avanzato dovrebbero astenersi per il mio bene. La buona creanza, se non il buonsenso clinico, lo vorrebbe. Io chiudo gli occhi, serro le gengive, mi tengo forte alle pareti dell’utero. Una turbolenza simile squasserebbe le ali di un Boeing. Mia madre incita il suo amante, lo sprona a insistere con strilli da luna park. Ogni volta, a ogni singolo colpo di pistone, ho il terrore che possa fare irruzione e fottersi il mio cranio molle e inseminarmi i pensieri col suo sperma, col latte brulicante della sua banalità. A quel punto, cerebroleso, penserò e parlerò come lui.

Profile Image for Maggie Stiefvater.
Author 81 books168k followers
October 22, 2022
Like the original Hamlet, it's bitter, rageful, hopeful, hyperbolic, cunning, impotent, brief.

(Also perhaps this is hypocritical of me to say, but dear me, what a good book with such a bad cover).
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,100 reviews7,192 followers
October 10, 2017
We know the plot (although not the outcome) from the blurbs and the first chapter. A pregnant woman is having an affair with her husband’s brother. He’s a dreamy type – a poet by trade, if we can consider that a trade, but he has inherited his family house in London worth millions. They plot how and when to kill him. He still loves her but they are separated; he’s living in a dingy apartment.

What gives the book its unique perspective is who is telling the story: the fetus of the pregnant woman. Fortunately he’s a bright kid and a quick study. The fetus hears all and knows all. He knows his (her) wine; he can even talk vintages. Sometimes he has a craving for herring. He can feel a book resting on her belly across his back. He learns a lot from radio and from podcasts she listens to on earphones. “I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap.”

We learn the house is a dump: “The cleaning lady left in sadness long before my time.” We know how the husband keeps trying to prolong his visits: “His visits don’t end, they fade.” When she makes love with her lover: “This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing.”

On her pregnancy: “Her bare, pink arms and legs, her purple-painted toenails, her full, unarguable beauty are on intimidating display. Her aspect is of a ship of the line, fully though reluctantly rigged, gun hatches lowered. A woman-of-war, of which I’m the bow’s proud figure-head. She descends in floating but intermittent movements. She’ll rise to whatever comes at her.”

He even has a plan if she gets caught: “I’ll brighten the penumbra of innocence and pathos she’ll want around her. Mother and child – a great religion has spun its best stories around this potent symbol. Sitting on her knee, pointing skywards, I’ll render her immune to prosecution.”


It’s great writing, as we expect from McEwan. He’s a master of analyzing a simple word: The ‘too’ in “I love you too.” Or the ‘now’ in “Personal life wrecked. And now…”

Thank you to Rebbie for recommending this book to me.

photo of McEwan from the guardian.com/books
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,352 followers
April 2, 2017
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

A nine-month-old baby boy resides in the womb of Trudy. Unaware that her baby is listening and is witness to all she does, Trudy concocts a sinister scheme with a mysterious cohort, a deceitful plan of betrayal and, possibly, murder.

Nutshell brings one of the most unique perspectives to storytelling. The limitations of writing an entire narrative from the viewpoint of a baby in the womb is not without its challenges, but the author succeeds in overcoming the hurdles that coincide with his use of such an unusual narrator.

How is it that I, not even young, not even born yesterday, could know so much, or know enough to be wrong about so much? I have my sources, I listen. My mother, Trudy, when she isn't with her friend Claude, likes the radio and prefers talk to music.

Despite the explanation for how the baby learns while in the womb, he is an exceptionally articulate narrator with a vocabulary that belies his age a tad too far. This is somewhat easy to forgive, because the writing is spectacular, but it's nonetheless noticeable that a baby who admits to having no understanding of what colors look like could so accurately describe furniture, or the ocean, or any number of other items he's never seen.

Pickled herring, gherkin, a slice of lemon on pumpernickel bread. They don't take long to reach me. Soon I'm whipped into alertness by a keen essence saltier than blood, by the tang of sea spray off the wide, open ocean road where lonely herring shoals skim northwards through clean black icy water. It keeps coming, a chilling Arctic breeze pouring over my face, as though I stood boldly in the prow of a fearless ship heading into glacial freedom.

Occasionally the baby partakes of philosophical thinking or offers social commentary that is mercilessly accurate.

And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun.

But it's the baby's connection to his devious mother that fascinates. His understanding of her body, the way her actions effect him, and his involvement in her sinister plans by default of being confined to her womb give the story a slant unlike any other.

Her blood beats through me in thuds like distant artillery fire and I can feel her struggling with a choice. I'm an organ in her body, not separate from her thoughts. I'm party to what she's about to do. When it comes at last, her decision, her whispered command, her single treacherous utterance, appears to issue from my own untried mouth.

With its clever approach to narrative, Nutshell is an engaging psychological thriller that's reminiscent of watching Alfred Hithcock's 1954 film, Rear Window.
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,442 followers
November 30, 2022
Ian McEwan a scris un roman interesant și ingenios. Cel puțin așa îmi șoptește gustul meu privat, care nu poate fi contrazis (să nu uităm preceptul „De gustibus non est...”).

Știu, Coajă de nucă are un povestitor greu creditabil, dar literatura e plină de povestitori necreditabili: indivizi răposați, miniaturiști aruncați într-o fîntînă de către un asasin fioros (ca în Mă numesc Roșu), misionari cu limba tăiată (ca într-o povestire de Camus, „Renegatul sau un spirit confuz”), Moartea însăși (ca în Hoțul de cărți). Și dacă orice lucru neînsuflețit poate prinde glas - prin efectul figurii retorice intitulată de specialiști prosopopee - , de ce nu ar putea vorbi, ironic și erudit (sic!), copilul încă nenăscut al numitei Trudy, cruda și sastisita soție a unui poet lipsit de har și de noroc.

Nu am de gînd s-o lungesc și să evoc laudativ, în această notă foarte grăbită, citatele ascunse în solilocviul înțelept al naratorului imposibil, intertextualitatea, adică, formulele admirabile în laconismul lor bonom, stilul alert, observația psihologică foarte precisă, toate de atribuit prozatorului englez. Deci, nu mă lungesc, nici n-ar avea haz la ora asta din noapte, dar nu pot încheia fără a vă face îndemnul de a citi acest roman, măcar atît cît am putut citi și eu din el în patru-cinci ore de lectură (atît mi-a luat să termin cartea!).

E vorba și de o crimă, recunosc, este vorba și despre Hamlet (piesa lui Shakespeare) sau, mai precis, de o re-scriere modernă a prea-cunoscutei piese (un Hamlet actual, ucis de amantul unei soții ingrate ca toate celelalte), e vorba de lumea în care deja domnesc lipsa de măsură și irațiunea, lumea noastră, adică. Numai Ofelia lipsește și, prin urmare, nimeni n-o poate trimite la mănăstire...

Citez pour la bonne bouche numai această frază lipsită de apel: „Cu multă vreme în urmă, cineva a proclamat convingerea neîntemeiată drept virtute. Acum oameni dintre cei mai civilizați spun că așa și este”.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
791 reviews
August 28, 2017
The narrator is a middle-aged brain trapped inside an unborn baby, itself trapped inside a novel, the events of which the narrator can’t see happening because he's in the dark, much like the reader, but nonetheless, he, the narrator, can recount the events once he’s heard that they’ve happened, and his account is very entertaining even if critical of the crazy plot and unbelievable characters, but unlike the reader, who can abandon the book anytime she wishes, the narrator can’t seem to make up his mind to take the necessary step to escape the plot in which he is encased in spite of the reader urging him to do so over and over until finally he gets his finger out, causing the book to end much to everyone’s relief, narrator, reader and even possibly the author himself.

That’s it in a
Profile Image for Justin Tate.
Author 7 books964 followers
May 8, 2020
Hamlet in the womb! Literally. The protagonist is a philosophical, wine-loving fetus who gains great intellect from the podcasts his mother listens to.

This is my first time reading Ian McEwan but I'm instantly a fan. His prose is beyond gorgeous, in the same vein as Michael Cunningham who I also worship. Beware that some may consider Ian a "writer's writer" who gets indulgent with his vocabulary and frequently shows off, but with this plot the amplified language works.

It's fresh and evocative to have a fetus thinking at all, but a whole new level having the unborn go off on philosophical rhapsodies and solve a murder mystery before his birth day. Yes, the premise is loose on reality but as a concept piece it's quite a thrill. After all, none of us remember what it was like in the womb. How aware of our surroundings were we really? What would it be like to be highly perceptive and unborn?

Again, outstanding accomplishment both in terms of beauty and entertainment. Not easy to write a page-turner that makes you think, but that's precisely what this is. A must-read!
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews651 followers
August 25, 2017
Hamlet in Utero
Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
I could check online, I suppose, but I suspect there is a story here. Is it a coincidence that, within months of the launch of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which famous authors (so far Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, and Margaret Atwood) are asked to retell Shakespeare plays in their own words, Ian McEwan (surely the equal of any of them) should come out with his own version of Hamlet, but not part of the series? Was he not asked? Or did he think he would simply do better on his own? Whatever the answer, his novel contains better writing than any of those actually in the series—one might say McEwan's best writing to date, in terms of the brilliance of his handling of words, ideas, and references. In short, an intellectual masterpiece.

But as a retelling of the Hamlet story, it strays farther from the canon than even the liberal approach of the other commissions; perhaps that is the point, that he demanded this freedom? Not that this matters; since it is not a Hogarth book, fidelity is no longer a criterion; you can judge it on its own merits. More important to me, though, is whether it tells enough of a story at all—whether Shakespeare's or McEwan's. For the first half or more, I felt that its brilliance as a literary tour-de-force detracted from its value as a novel, in the sense of narrative with rounded characters and a plot. It was not until much later that I changed my mind.

For this is Hamlet in utero. Yes, the first line of this 200-page soliloquy is: "So here I am, upside down in a woman." Hamlet's third-trimester interuterine viewpoint may be limited—he has no understanding of colors, for instance—but he more than makes up for it with his other senses; here is is, for example, as an oenophile:
I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta. Even before the wine arrives—tonight, a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre—at the sound of a drawn cork, I feel it on my face like the caress of a summer breeze.
Hamlet's (he's not actually named) front-row balcony viewpoint on the intercourse between his mother Trudy and his uncle Claude is bizarrely pornographic, and his knowledge of the outside world, gained ostensibly through his mother's addiction to podcasts, rivals that of the baby Stewie Griffin in Family Guy. This is a very funny book—far more so that McEwan's previous satire, Solar —though there were times when I wondered if the author's creation of an all-knowing fetus was simply a device to enable him to pontificate on the state of the world today:
Free speech no longer free, liberal democracy no longer the obvious port of destiny, robots stealing jobs, liberty in close combat with security, socialism in disgrace, capitalism corrupt, destructive and in disgrace, no alternatives in sight.
Well, let him pontificate now and then. For the brilliance of McEwan's wordplay, his vast range of reference, and his deftness in conjuring almost subliminal Shakespeare echoes throughout is worth the price of a little preaching. And there are times when he is nothing less than beautiful:
There's pathos in this familiar routine, in the sounds of homely objects touching surfaces. And in the little sigh she makes when she turns or slightly bends our unwieldy form. It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.
I think it was reading this passage on page 162, four-fifths of the way through, that first convinced me that what I was reading was more than a jeu-d'esprit but an often profound meditation. Up until then, there had been that little matter of the story. For the characters, though sharply drawn, could not be said to be rounded, and how much of Hamlet can you tell with the title character still unborn? But then I realized the freedom McEwan had gained by not writing within the Hogarth requirements. We may know how the play turns out, but there is no need for any of it to be replicated in the novel: there need be no revenge plot, no ghost, Hamlet's father need not even be killed. We can read with suspense, because William Shakespeare has no necessary hold over an independent Ian McEwan. In fact, he does not totally depart from the original story, but by the time things get moving in the last fifty pages or so, he manages to create surprises that make the novel increasingly satisfying, not only for style but also for plot.
Profile Image for Nayra.Hassan.
1,259 reviews5,624 followers
October 3, 2022
العاقل لا يبطل حقا و لا يحق باطلا
و ستظل نقمتنا الأولى على الارض انه لا يحق لنا اختيار آبائنا؛ هم صناع نصف اقدارنا شئنا ام أبينا
ففي دماؤنا تجتمع جيناتهم هم و اسلافهم لتشكل القاعدة الاجبارية لكينونتنا
لو علينا؛ لاخترناهم أذكياء؛ اسوياء؛كرماء؛ اغنياء
لكننا بالطبع في : دار ابتلاء
و كثيرا ما نجد نفسنا نتمنى لو لم نكون؛ لم نولد قط و لا تفارقنا الأمنية سوي على باب القبر
مثلما فعل بطلنا الاستثنائي الحائر الذي حقق هنا أمنية بطل شكسبير الأول :هاملت

جنين يروي لنا  بفصاحة مأساته:امه و عمه عشاق و يخططون لقتل والده ليفوزوا بالبيت العريق
و هنا يجب الا ننسي :قانون الابن الأول الظالم و الذي يتسبب في مأسي أبدية في بريطانيا؛ الابن الاكبر" هو و من بعده ابنه الأول"الذين يفوزون وحدهم بملكية الأسرة و باقي الأبناء يتحرقوا ؟! و هكذا تتحدد كينونتك و اقدارك بترتيب مولدك؛ و قراراتك اذا افلحت في اتخاذها في الوقت المناسب سترسمها دوما وفقا لتلك الكينونة

الحر عبد اذا طمع *
في تناص روائي مع هاملت نعيش أجواء بريطانية عصرية متحللة..في إطار مسرحي تحليلي رمزي؛ فقير الأحداث و المشاهد
و سرد ثري ذكي كثيف  ملئ بالاشعار  الكامدة المنصبة على الأنا؛ بترجمة متفوقة؛ نرى كيف يغمر التحلل الكل و يحيا الابطال وسط القمامة حرفيا؛ تلك التي تغطي أركان البيت المتصارع عليه و تلك التي تغطي سرائرهم

نرى الأنانية الغربية الوجودية متمثلة في رفض الإنجاب و التربية.. رفض وهب ساعات من عمرك او متعتك لانسان أضعف.. رفض منح شذرة من كينونتك لهدف اسمي؛ رفض الغد

نرى صراعا بين حب الجنين الفطري لأمه و تقززه مما ترتكبه في حق والده و في حقه من اثام لا تمحوها الأزمان
ببهيميتها المقيتة نرى ترودي تسئ لابنها و كينونته في كل لحظة؛ فهي تشرب الخمر بافراط طوال الحمل؛ لا تأكل اكلا مغذيا؛ تمارس الفاحشة و الخطيئة بافراط و بطرق مسيئة للجنين.. تعيش كخنزير جميل في بيئة متعفنة بمعنى الكلمة ليتكامل جوهرها مع بيئتها بشكل يجعل القارى يكاد يتقيأ

بينما كان كلود العم العشيق ابسط كثيرا؛ فالجشع و الشهوانية و الحسد رسمَا مستقبله سلفا بحسب قانون الغاب :الغاية تبرر الوسيلة

اما جون الشاعر الزوج المخدوع فضعفه و  ثورته المتأخرة تثير حنقنا أيضا

و معا بكل ما يرمزون اليه؛ يرسمون مستقبل سوداوي مشؤوم/متعفن للحضارة و الانسانية فاساس كل إنسان: أسرة؛ لو كانت سوية؛ فسيكون.. و لو كانت مختلة فلن يكون
هذه رواية كُتبت لنكرهها و نكره كل ابطالها الاغبياء و نصرخ مع الجنين
اهذه هي الدنيا التي نتصارع عليها؟
شهوة تهزم الحب
جشع يجرف الوفاء
شبق يصرع الامومة
غباء ييتم الأبناء
حضارة تتحلل وتتأكل
أجيال يهدرها العبث
تاركة للكل :الاسي في المقدمة
تعقبها العدالة
و من ثم المعنى
و البقية:فوضى
Profile Image for Robin.
493 reviews2,724 followers
April 5, 2017
Hamlet in utero: daring idea resonates with Bardly brilliance

We all know the basic concept of Hamlet, even if it's been years since we read it in university, or watched Kenneth Branagh's soliloquies (or Mel Gibson, ergh). He's the guy who's fretting constantly, whose fatal flaw is inaction. He can wax poetic like none other, but that's about all he does, bless him.

Well, Ian McEwan had the fantastical idea to resurrect dear Hamlet, in the form of a 3rd trimester foetus. Said foetus (who articulates with the sophistication of a middle aged english literature professor and who happens to have the refined tastes of a sommelier) hears his mother and her lover conspire to kill his kindly poet father. What is more helpless than an unborn child? What else can he do but listen, and then soliloquize about the horrors of the world around him, and his powerlessness to act?

I bought it. I bought everything. I bought the adult vocabulary bestowed on the baby, I bought the grandiose speeches. I bought the Shakespearean-y plot. I enjoyed every page! It was so very clever, unique, and gorgeously written. It was also funny as hell - I've never before read a scene depicting the experience of a foetus enduring sex between his mother and her lover. Shakespearian quotes are tucked in here and there too, like easter eggs for us to pounce upon with glee. And he even throws in a lil Oedipus for fun.

I don't know what rock I've been living under for my entire life, but somehow I've managed to get this far without reading McEwan. I've finally crawled out from under the boulder. Now I've got a lot of catching up to do.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,131 followers
September 25, 2016
A unique read but a tad too gimmicky for me.

Nut Shell by Ian McEwan is a story told from the perspective of a foetus. It's a tale of murder and deceit and is clever is its concept and prose.

Trudy has betrayed her husband John. She lives in the marital home which is a priceless London townhouse. She and her lover have a plan and its from the point of view of her 9 month old foetus that we lean what exactly is at foot.

I loved the opening line of the Novel " 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."

This is my 5th book by McEwan and while I was excited to receive my copy in the post, I had difficulty connecting with this story. I didn't feel I got to know the characters and I was disappointed by the novel's conclusion. Having said that McEwan has some great lines in this book. His prose is impeccable and at 198 pages this reads like a short story but it just was a tad too gimmicky for my liking.

My favourite novels by this author are On Chesil Beach and The Children Act

Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews934 followers
June 5, 2017
Brilliant, twisted, witty and sardonic - the story itself seems a more George Saunders concept than Ian McEwan, but it's pure Ian McEwan in execution. The writing!! What language is this he uses to communicate with the reader? I know these words, but how he combines them is so pure, so organic, so perfect and true - I always feel as though I am experiencing the written word for the first time when I read him. Truly, I wish I could shake all the words out of his books and roll in them in pure hedonistic pleasure.

I suspect my favorite book of McEwan's will always be "Atonement," but this is a close second. The story is narrated by an 8-month-old fetus. "Baby," who is very observant and ruminates upon life with the philosophical expanse of Socrates, has overheard his mother and her lover plot to kill his father. Not much baby can do but observe and offer droll commentary, but that is everything! The characters in this domestic drama are wonderfully fleshed out by baby as the plot thickens.

Remarkable in every way. I read it twice and know I will pick it up again and again just for the heady pleasure of his immaculate phrasing. Goosebumps, really. We are not worthy.

Profile Image for Ruby Granger.
Author 3 books46.8k followers
April 18, 2020
I've got to say that this wasn't one of my favourite McEwan books, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I would still hugely recommend it, mainly because of the narrative voice. The story itself is purely domestic (troubles within a relationship which become sinister *no spoilers*); however, it is told from the perspective of the woman's unborn child. The foetus listens to the world from the womb, deducing the nature of his parents and the world. Since we are a visual-driven culture, this is such a cool way of approaching the world (though, ironically, there is still a huge emphasis on what the child thinks everything will look like).

The voice itself, in true McEwan fashion, is highly intelligent and receptive. It draws on impressive reference and profound thought. The depth of thought means I would recommend sitting down and taking the book slowly to fully appreciate it.
Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews932 followers
July 26, 2019

I have rather stormy relationship with Ian McEwan. I quite enjoyed some of his novels while other works, to put it mildly, were a big letdown. The more I read him the more I felt irritated with look at me and admit I’m so fucking brilliant, Ian . He has a knack of picking only topical issues but sometimes I thought he was too clever to his own good; if he hadn’t been so focused on willingness to impress a reader, if he was not so impersonal and allowed the reader to enter his thoughts, if he was more in the middle of his own stories I would probably feel more engaged too, I guess. So while, despite all the ifs, I still could acknowledge his skills and dexterity as a writer I was slightly tired with his morbid sex&death fascination and the way he handled it. So surprise, surprise. Who would have thought I would read and enjoy his recent novel so much.

I liked the concept of Nutshell, far-fetched as it was it pretty well worked for me. Tragicomic deliberations of nine months foetus, witnessing and involuntarily participating from his relatively safe haven in plotting of his mother and uncle to get rid of his father, were clever and quite amusing. To give the voice the muted one, to bestow the power to try change the course of events to the most helpless being was surprisingly refreshing. You can say it's madness, yet there`s method in`t.

I liked finding similarity to Hamlet and laughed out loud at times . While his more sophisticated predecessor could deliberately philosophize to be or not to be our unborn yet narrator had to settle for to kick or not to kick actions for the time being. And though the novel was rather on the eccentric side and our hero strangely verbose for an unborn child, , I didn’t mind it at all. Some of my previous reservations concerning McEwan’s writing was that with time I had irresistible suspicion it served mostly to shock a reader. But since this one was more or less retelling Shakespearean theme I wasn’t shocked by the ending at all and didn’t expect any change of heart from any part here. I don’t know if that novel could win the prize for the most bizarre or unexpected narrator though for sure it would be among the leaders. But as Bard himself said there are more things in heaven and earth… . And the rest is silence. Or chaos. Your choice.
Profile Image for Helle.
376 reviews375 followers
September 11, 2016
It’s become a bookseller’s cliché to say that it’s an event when Ian McEwan has a new book out. Of course, it’s nonetheless true, and this, his latest novel, was promptly added to my to-read list the minute I heard of it and ordered the minute it came out. That creates pressure, and expectations.

These four days later, I’m not so sure. Certainly Nutshell proves McEwan’s skill, if anyone was still in doubt, but within what, I’m just not sure. Shakespearean craziness? Unlikely narrator? Implausible omniscience of said narrator?

The ‘novel’ is a spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is most timely since 2016 has marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. So we have (Ger)Trudy as the mother and Claude as the uncle with which Trudy is having an affair – and then we have little (unnamed) Hamlet - in utero - i.e. an unborn foetus, who with his all-knowing verboseness stretches our suspension of disbelief to the point of breakage. Not only are we asked to believe that he picked up his wordsmithing skills while listening – via his mother – to radio 4; we are also meant to buy all the political digressions the foetus makes in the middle of worries about the conspiracy between Trudy and Claude to murder his father - the novel’s ‘story’.

This is clearly a construct, then, a conceit even, perhaps deliberately so. McEwan himself has predicted that he would get a kicking for this, but to a large extent reviewers have been positive. The Guardian calls the novel An elegiac masterpiece. The Irish Times suggests it is either ridiculous or rather brilliant (I rather agree) and says it is a return to the darker stories of McEwan’s early career. It is certainly a deviation from his most recent writing (which may be the point), in both story – or lack thereof – and prose (which here resembles poetry more than in any of his other novels).

It is difficult to believe in the motivation behind the murder/conspiracy. It is, after all, easier to get a divorce these days than it was in Shakespeare’s time. It is also asking a lot of the reader to believe that a woman at the end of her last trimester will have that much sex (though for all I know, I could be the odd one out in that respect). But these ‘details’ seem to be less important in a novel that never tries to be realistic. The novel, to me, is one long, lyrical, loquacious experiment – a Shakespearean soliloquy in which the core question – to be or not to be (which, cleverly, is never actually asked) - becomes a pre-natal concern rather than that of an adult prince of Denmark. Will he be orphaned, given away, raised in a prison? This is addressed in the first lines already:

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.

Denmark/Elsinore is reduced to a take-away meal consisting of Danish open sandwiches. (Tut tut, says the Dane)

Much more can be said and asked about this unusual novel: Is the foetus merely a (too) clever device, acting as McEwan’s mouthpiece? Does the narrative voice deliberately channel Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert? Is there symbolism in the narrator’s father being a poet and thus deserving of death in the minds of lesser characters? Will I appreciate this more on a second reading years hence?

Well. Upon closing the book, as I said, I just don’t know. I was impressed but not emotionally engaged. For all these reasons, I want to recommend it to my goodreads friends. I want to see other reactions and find out whether you would land on ‘ridiculous’ or ‘rather brilliant’ – or a combination of both.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
November 29, 2016
In my mind’s eye is a vision of McEwan himself opening the door to detectives investigating a murder, and noticing everything about what they do, how they look, how their voices sound. He might begin to play on their curiosity a bit, making leading statements that drift off into nothingness…and then suddenly revive his tale with a stronger, quicker tone when they query his lead. Oh, you author of fictions, who plays so with our heads.

Oh course a real murder is not nearly so amusing as its fictional half-brother, and we get inklings of that in this novel that highlights dark and murky motives for murder from an unusual quarter: a snobbish unborn oenophile who, though he cannot see, has numerous other senses with which to sense and judge his family.

One of the best parts of this novel comes right at the start, when McEwan takes a stab at imagining the first moment of consciousness in a human’s life. Not just any human, but Trudy’s son, likewise son of the psoriatic poet, John, whom Trudy plots to kill during the course of this novel. And oh, such lying words spoken to hide the greed, lust, and revenge were never spoken so beautifully, so smoothly, so unbelievably. For they weren’t believed, not by the fetus, the chief inspector, nor, apparently, by John’s poetess friend.

This delightful novel had the parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet that others have pointed to, but it was also a crime novel par excellence, with the plot, murder, defense, and getaway offered up with sly asides to those of us who think it might be easy to pull off such a thing when one is two weeks shy of a full term.

But more, McEwan throws in cameos on the state of the world delivered on TV news shows, radio announcements, or earphones-delivered political podcasts and has our not-yet-born listen to discourse on the torments to come. “These disasters are the work of our twin natures. Clever and infantile.” All of which makes the listening fetus feel anxiety and no little umbrage. “Like everyone else, I’ll take what I want, whatever suits me.” Oh yes, son of mine, you no doubt will.

And what of revenge, yearned for by John’s son, who wishes most heartily for John to return and crush the life from his murderers. Following the build-up to the murder while floating in his amniotic sac, our clever fetus realizes he needs to seize his opportunity to avenge his father’s death.

We are treated, in the course of this novel, to writing advice: ‘If it doesn’t come at once, it shouldn’t come. There is a special grace in facility.’ ‘Don’t unpack your heart. One detail tells the truth.’ and ‘Form isn’t a cage.’ In an interview McEwan tells us this advice is “rubbish” he picked up from a Saul Bellow interview he’d heard once. "One really does have to work at it,” he tells us and in this case he'd worked on it solidly for 18 months, doing very little else, all the while assailed by doubts about whether he was completely bonkers to be writing from the point of view of a fetus.

The book is slim, and yet packed with murderous plotting, references to other literature, the state of the world, and the curious position of a fetus so clearly aware of his environment. This of course would take some writerly skill and attention to detail. An earlier draft of this review sounded patronizing regarding the struggle to birth such a piece, though conceiving a novel from the viewpoint of a fetus was…as easy as rolling off a log, from what McEwan tells us. As it should be.

Critics I have read have a tendency to choose favorites from among McEwan oeuvre, utterly discarding a few titles as so much mulch. I feel differently. In nearly every book McEwan brings in world issues we face (like climate change), indicating to me that this author suffers not from a failure of imagination. His sense of humor still reigns supreme, including us in his worldview. He is writing to us, for us. For that we celebrate his skills.


This review was modified as a result of this GR friend's review which includes links to two interviews with McEwan about this book. One of the interviews made me rethink and reassess my experience with this novel.

Profile Image for Barbara.
1,392 reviews4,905 followers
August 12, 2023

In Nutshell, a sort of modern take on 'Hamlet', a son becomes aware that his mother Trudy and her lover Claude are planning to murder his father John - who happens to be Claude's brother. The twist in Ian McEwan's novel is that the son, and narrator of the book, is a late term fetus.....in utero.

The not-yet-born baby, who's preternaturally knowledgeable and articulate, explains that he got his smarts from overheard conservations and the many podcasts his mother listens to. (The descriptions of the podcasts alone make the book worth reading. LOL)

Trudy is separated from her husband John but continues to live in the London home he inherited from his parents, while hubby languishes in a small apartment. The family property is worth millions of pounds, and the greedy adulterers plan to kill John, sell the house, and reap the rewards.

To add insult to injury, Claude has mentioned 'placing the baby somewhere' after the murder - so the couple can go on their merry way unencumbered. Naturally, this doesn't sit right with the unborn infant.

Trudy and Claude think John - a rather dreamy poet - is unaware of their liaison. To the adulterers dismay, John shows up unexpectedly one day and disabuses them of this notion. John tells his wife and brother that he's moving back into the house, and they have to leave.

Taken aback, the adulterers decide to accelerate their murder plot. That's about all I can say about the story without spoilers.

The eavesdropping fetus is quite a hoot. He's like a tiny sommelier - very smart about wine - and tipsy half the time from Trudy's drinking. The infant is also savvy about sex, and privy to lots of hot coupling between Trudy and Claude. As a result, the baby frequently worries about his uncle's wiener poking (and spraying) his head.....thinking he might absorb some of Claude's (unwanted) characteristics.

In fact, the poor baby has a lot to worry about as he ruminates about everything he overhears. So....concerned for his personal welfare, the fetus takes matters into his own hands at the book's climax.

I enjoyed this unique story and would recommend the book to fans of literary novels, and readers looking for something a little different.

You can follow my reviews at https://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot....
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,730 followers
October 18, 2016
Alas poor phœtus! I knew him, McEwan: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me in his sac a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!


Seriously, Hamlet + 3rd Trimester + Conspiracy + Poetry = funky magic. According to Christopher Booker*, "there are only seven basic plots in the whole world -- plots that are recycled again and again in novels, movies, plays and operas." Ian McEwan sucks the Hamlet story right up into the Queen of Denmark's uterus. Not really. This is not Hamlet, rather Hamletesque. I'm going to have to carry this to be or not to be baby through a dreamless night to properly bring her to full-term.

Ian McEwan seems to have been drinking a lot with Martin Amis. This seems to be almost too clever, but it is so unique that he kinda pulls the little bugger off. Imagine Hamlet soliloquizing inside his mother as his uncle Claude bangs his cock against his mum's thin uterine wall. This is the twisted stuff of literature and art. This is where both dreams and nightmares are born and borne. This novella contains both the spilt seeds of life AND the unfrozen nectar of death. Out of the mouth of unborn babes and placenta-nursing fetuses - tipsy after mum has had her 4th wine - new truths about the world are discovered. I wander, but not far too far; trapped within a membrane, I don't want to give much away.

*This quote is actually directly from an April 2015, NYTimes review of his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Michiko Kakutani
Profile Image for Nina (ninjasbooks).
953 reviews374 followers
March 17, 2023
Now this was something new. Reading a book from the perspective of a fetus surely made the plot unique, and interesting,
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,485 reviews843 followers
November 29, 2016

Not a fan of this one. I like weird and wonderful if it is somehow believable. It needs to be plausible if we accept certain premises, like when we read a story narrated by someone who’s died. Once we accept the narrator as the actual teller of the story, then we can ‘believe’ the rest of it.

In this case, the narrator is the soon-to-be-born baby still in Trudy’s womb, eavesdropping on her life with her husband's brother, Claude, and their scheming to be free of her husband, John. The baby refers to itself as he/him.

Okay. I’ll accept his point-of-view just as I’d accept a fly-on-the-wall point of view.

The baby listens in and tells us how Claude has won his mother over with noisy, vigorous, messy sex (much to the disgust of her nearby, uncomfortably prodded, offspring).

Okay. A bit unappealing, but okay. Then the baby reminds us that he can’t see things (well, duh, we KNOW that), but he tries to piece together what information there is to create a story.

“When I hear ‘blue’, which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to ‘green’—which I’ve never seen. . . I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are no saying, a blank slate. But a slippery, porous slate no schoolroom or cottage roof could find use for, a slate that writes upon itself as it grows by the day and becomes less blank.”

Not okay. This bub has apparently listened to his father’s poetry and literary conversations, so we could credit him with understanding that the words ‘blue’ and ‘green’ have some connection to each other. But to carry on with the descriptive metaphor of himself as a ‘slate’ in reference to a schoolroom or a cottage roof is outside the premise I’ve accepted.

I’ve accepted this tiny being can relate a story to me (ridiculous, but, you know, I agreed), but I can’t accept that on the one hand he tells me (many times) that he can’t see or smell, and on the other hand can create metaphors and later describe how he imagines a young woman visitor one evening:

“By nocturnal association I dress her in tight-fitting black leather jacket and jeans, let her be young, pale, pretty, her own woman.”

There’s plenty of musing about how many glasses of white wine Trudy’s drinking and how ‘relaxed’ the baby is becoming. In fact, when she’s drinking a lovely local white in NZ, the baby says:

“I’m feeling a friendly touch of disassociation: I’m already some useful steps removed and see myself revealed some fifteen feet below me, like a fallen climber spreadeagled and supine on a rock. I can begin to comprehend my situation, I can think as well as feel. An unassuming New World white can do this much.”

Way too far off track from the first premise I accepted, I'm afraid. There are also a fair few political messages about the world today that seem out of place, except that this is a baby wondering what sort of world he’d about to enter, I suppose.

Odd and not really my taste, I’m afraid. But McEwan is always worth reading to see what he’s up to.

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK for a preview copy.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,987 followers
January 27, 2020
Update one week post reading: So, I am seeing now that this book is a re-telling of Hamlet!?!? How did I miss that!?

4 to 4.5 stars

Seems like this offering from McEwan tends not to get very high ratings, but I liked it quite a bit. It was more of a novella than a novel, but that is what I needed right now – a quick and enjoyable read!

The key to this book is that it is told from the perspective of an in-utero fetus with the intelligence of an adult. As I mentioned in one of my comments while I was reading, this is what I pictured the entire time:

In order to accept this story, you must suspend your disbelief and be comfortable with a fetus talking to you like a scholar. But what this does is make the story very unique. Only events happening within the vicinity of the mother can be interpreted – anything else is conjecture. Also, without this viewpoint and approach, it is just another story of lust and revenge. With this narrator, it makes it a special experience.

I have refrained from reading any reviews so far so as I write this, I cannot say for sure why the star rating is trending low. For me it was easily readable and entertaining. He does get a bit long winded at points – and, with the vocabulary used, maybe those who are unable to suspend disbelief far enough are not into it. Also, some of the directions the plot takes might make people too uncomfortable

In the case of this book, I enjoyed it but I am not sure I can recommend it. It is just too hard to say who would like it and who wouldn’t.

Follow up: After writing this I went and looked at the ratings and reviews. It appears it is not my Goodreads friends responsible for the 3.67 rating (at the time of this review)! Mainly 4 and 5 stars!
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
September 12, 2016
“Nutshell,” Ian McEwan’s preposterously weird little novel, is more brilliant than it has any right to be. The plot sounds like something sprung from a drunken round of literary Mad Libs: a crime of passion based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” narrated by a fetus.

That it should come to this!

If you can get beyond that icky premise, you’ll discover a novel that sounds like a lark but offers a story that’s surprisingly suspenseful, dazzlingly clever and gravely profound. To the extent that “Hamlet” is an existential tragedy marked with moments of comedy, “Nutshell” is a philosophical comedy marked by. . . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:

And to see The Totally Hip Video Book Review, click here:
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
May 9, 2018
My last experience of reading McEwan was On Chesil Beach which I found rather dreary and depressing and deterred me from reading his subsequent novels. Encouraged by the positive reviews, I have had this one on the shelf since the paperback came out last summer but have only just found the time to read it.

This is a book that really should not work, but it is a lively and enjoyable read full of surprises. Its central conceit - transplanting part of the story of Hamlet to modern Britain and making the narrator an unborn baby is really just a twist on the traditional omniscient narrator and McEwan clearly had fun deciding what the narrator should be allowed to know, but he never addresses why he has an innate knowledge of language or such a wide range of allusion. All forgiveable - this is an entertaining exercise and a short book that never outstays its welcome.
Profile Image for Seemita.
180 reviews1,613 followers
August 8, 2017
[Originally appeared here (with edits): http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/li...]
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.
This wonderfully sapient insight springs somewhere in the middle of this book and almost gives away the rationale behind McEwan’s choice of protagonist - a fetus.

Yes, this 200-odd pages of scheming a murder is seen through the eyes of a fetus from the womb of his mother, a party to the hatching game. The other party is her lover, who is also incidentally her husband’s brother. They huddle together in the former’s house, conspiring to kill the husband. Sounds familiar?

Those who have read Hamlet would clearly jump the gun and arrest McEwan in plagiaristic contempt. But lo and behold! The man has chosen the plot deliberately, much as a tribute to the Bard and accomplishes the job with mesmerizing wizardry. For McEwan dons one of his shrewdest and most luscious hats to undertake this arduous task of retelling the Shakespearean spell-binder and produces a cunning, stylized, original yet deep version of it.

The fetus has keen sensorial abilities and McEwan grants him an endearing, occasionally hilarious, armoury of language to narrate his observations.
I picture a hayloft, off which a hundred-kilo sack of grain is tossed to the granary floor. Then another, and a third. Such are the thuds of my mother’s heart.
The musty air that whooshes past him, tell him his mother has opened a window to an overcast sky, and from the soft thuds of her arm muscles, he envisages her to be slowly getting down the stairs. Her night walks, her lovemaking, her alcohol binge, her brave facades, they all find a delightful reflection on the fetus’ world, as if there was a clear mirror that reflected, without dilution, the mother’s acts and thoughts, to the son.

But the obedient son must reunite his parents and stop the heinous crime from being committed. But what can a mere fetus, who can’t even breathe of his own volition, possibly do to avert the catastrophe?

This book restored my love-hate relationship with McEwan to a respectable balance as I happily awarded numerous brownie points to him. Choosing an unconventional hero is easy; proving him one, is difficult. While many authors would have dispatched the proposition of appointing a fetus as a narrator to dustbin without much of a thought, McEwan stays true to this absolutely refreshing point of view with a vengeance. Not jumbling up the adult vagaries with the fetus’ across most of pages is a feat which demands more than few claps. But that the modern-day child, genetically, has a sharper IQ than his parent is unleashed without restraint.
It wasn’t hatred that killed the innocents but faith, that famished ghost, still revered, even in the mildest quarters. Long ago, someone pronounced groundless certainty a virtue. Now, the politest people say it is.
At every instance that I contemplated reducing McEwan’s marks for imparting an astoundingly (often unbelievably) fecund tongue to a 8-months old fetus, he blurred that rationale with a blizzard of hypnotic writing. (He called it later, a liberating act) Of course, they remained far from being all shallow and thus, I remained on course to see where the fetus lands up, literally. The climax, where things could have gone awry, held up good and the multiple inferences sitting hidden in the fetus’ journey assumed another delectable layer of story-telling.

Should McEwan bring a sequel to this book, he can be assured of atleast one reader.
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