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A fetus narrates Ian McEwan’s retelling of Hamlet

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Photo: Libby McGuire
Photo: Libby McGuire

The title Nutshell comes from Hamlet: “Oh, God, I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.” And from the first line we understand that the book’s narrator is indeed confined to a very small space: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” The narrator of Nutshell is a fetus.


This fetus hangs upside down in Trudy Cairncross, who is married to but separated from the baby’s father, John Cairncross. She is still living in his family home—while having an affair with John’s brother Claude. The fetus, who can’t help but eavesdrop from his confined position, has learned of a sinister plot between Trudy and Claude. What are they going to do to John?

This is one conceit that runs throughout Nutshell: a fetus tells the story. He addresses the way he experiences the world early in the book: “I’m immersed in abstractions,” he claims on page two, “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.” Later he explains:

How is it that I, not even young, not even born yesterday, could know so much? I have my sources, I listen. My mother … likes the radio and prefers talk to music … I hear, above the laundrette din of stomach and bowels, the news, wellspring of all bad dreams…


With short explanations interwoven throughout the story (how he listens to podcast lectures and audio books, how he casts his prenatal mind out to “imagine” events not within his immediate earshot), readers can continue to suspend their disbelief at the narrator’s unlikely precociousness and follow the plot of the story.

The other conceit of the book, which takes a few more pages to discover, is that the plot is a modern retelling of Hamlet. Trudy is a version of Gertrude, Claude is Claudius, and the fetus is a Hamlet who truly can’t take action against his treacherous uncle because, well, he’s a fetus. All he can do is listen and wait—and drop an astounding amount of Shakespearean references along the way. The house Trudy lives in is filthy (as rotten as the state of Denmark)—“foul” matter lingers, a “too solid stench” comes from behind the walls. A sex scene is described in theatrical terms: “Enter Claude … Exit Claude,” and in between Claude calls Trudy “his mouse, which seems to please her, but no kisses” (reechy or otherwise). These references are enormous fun to recognize.

A little less fun are the philosophical digressions the fetus embarks on, which can feel a little discombobulating when you’re used to a point of view that focuses so tightly on the immediate surroundings of a particular woman’s womb. But what might begin as a meditation on the desire to be born expands suddenly into a global Q&A session: “Will the Middle East remain in a frenzy… Will the USA decline quietly? Will China grow a conscience, will Russia? Will global finance and corporations?” These feel like remote concerns for a not-yet newborn, and it is easy to feel impatient to return to the domestic drama—tragedy, even—at closer range.

At the beginning there are questions: Will Trudy and Claude be successful in their attempt to rid themselves of John? Will they use the same method that, in Hamlet, Claudius used to kill Hamlet’s father? Will the fetus find a way to take action—to thwart the lovers’ plans or, if he can’t manage that, to avenge his father’s death? By the end of the book these questions are answered, and in a believable and satisfying way.


Nutshell may be a short book, but it is not hard to crack. And what lies within—the suspense of a murder plot, the matching game that’s played when a classic story is retold, and the unique perspective of an unborn narrator—is quite pleasurable to both pick through and savor.

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