Adult fiction has its fair share of young narrators. Perhaps the most original is Susie Salmon in Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” who tells her story from her personal heaven. In his latest novel, “Nutshell,” Ian McEwan takes a step in the other direction by employing not a dead narrator but a not-yet-born one. “So here I am,” runs the opening line, “upside down in a woman.” It is such a bizarre conceit that a lesser, more limited writer would play safe and confine the novelty to an experimental short story. McEwan, a fearless prose stylist, sustains the strangeness throughout an entire novel and produces dazzling results.

To call McEwan’s baby wise beyond his months is an understatement. Having absorbed information from the podcasts his mother listens to, and the food and alcohol she throws down her neck, he has become not only an erudite authority on world events, science and culture, but also a wine connoisseur and gourmand. From the confines of his “meager living room,” he muses on the threats facing civilization and worries about his parents’ trial separation.

But in addition to listening to lectures, arguments and “the launderette din of stomach and bowels,” the baby eavesdrops on a devious plot. His mother and her lover intend to bump off his poet-father and share his money. The plan is put into action, but recriminations follow. When the police come calling to ask questions and weigh answers, it isn’t long before they smell a rat.

No McEwan novel is complete without a clutch of shock revelations, and one early twist reveals that the mother’s lover is her husband’s brother — the baby’s uncle. At this point, the novel’s epigraph from “Hamlet” acquires greater significance. “Untrue Trudy” and “Priapic, satanic Claude” are modern incarnations of Gertrude and Claudius. The baby’s meditations on meaning and mortality are 21st-century soliloquies. Most ingenious of all is how McEwan repurposes Shakespeare’s hero’s tragic flaw, his inability to act — by having his narrator trapped inside a womb.

“Nutshell” belongs to that dark tributary of McEwan novels which includes “The Cement Garden” (1978), “The Innocent” (1990) and Booker-winner “Amsterdam” (1998) — black comedies aswirl with macabre thoughts and foul deeds. It sees McEwan at his most playful — his baby picking holes in the lovers’ dastardly scheme or making wry observations and pronouncements (“Murderers before the deed find small talk a burden”). The few grim interludes (the baby contemplating taking his life — “three times around my neck of the mortal coil” — and arriving stillborn) are offset by more farcical death-tinged moments, from the pivotal scene with a poison-laced smoothie to the aftermath in which a ghost haunts his killers.

Some readers may grumble that “Nutshell” lacks the scope, tension and emotional depth of McEwan’s career-high masterpiece “Atonement” (2001). It would be more worthwhile, however, to acknowledge it as a different kind of McEwan novel, and applaud it for its beauty, precision and inventiveness.

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Nutshell
By: Ian McEwan.
 Doubleday, 197 pages, $24.95.