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A king of infinite space

Book review
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

Do you have a friend who enjoys satire? If you do, this short novel may be the perfect gift. The novel takes its cue from Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1767 ). Although not as obscure as Sterne’s book, American readers might be a little challenged to identify some of the satire. While a fetus is the narrator of the first three parts of Tristram Shandy, a fetus is the sole narrator of Ian McEwan's Nutshell. This comic device presents an opportunity for a fetus threatened with the possibility of abortion to have a circumspect, satirical voice, bordering on cynicism and jealous rage for the living, who remain selfish, narcissistic, nasty, privileged, and seriously out of touch with reality. Besides being an outrageous comic, this fetus is a brilliant intellectual who has a multitude of bizarre talents, the least of which is the ability to identify the Provence, year, and exact farm address of various French vintages (a little satire on the American novelist Jay McInerney who indulges himself with a sideline of publishing books on French wine). More difficult for American readers will be the current trendy poet of the upper class who produces “poetry.” More easily identified is the parody of Julian Barnes, especially his novel Talking It Over (1991) and its sequel Love, etc (2000). As in Sterne, some of the insults characters utter go for the jugular.

Here is a sample voice from the geography of the unborn: “No child, still less a fetus has ever mastered the art of small talk, or would ever want to. It’s an adult device, a covenant with boredom and deceit.” This fetus is a master philosopher and brilliant psychologist who finds himself inside a Shakespearean nightmare, hence the title from Hamlet. The narrator is claustrophobic, hyper, trapped in a madhouse. He wants out, but there appears, as in the play, no exit.

In the spirit of Sterne, I will digress. I once worked in a bookstore by a noted university where a professor included Sterne’s novel on his reading and lecture list. The book arrived well before classes began, but the store manager flipped the pages and discovered a blank page. All the copies had this same blank page. He folded down the blank pages in each book and returned them to the publisher with a note that the printing was defective. The books arrived again the week after classes began. He flipped through a copy to check it and came across a page that had nothing but black ink. (Ditto with all copies.) So they were again repackaged and returned as defective. A couple of weeks later the professor turned up in the store to enquire why we did not have the book. When the professor was told what happened, he frowned. “You’re a dunce,” he said. “That’s the way it was written.” The professor had to reshuffle his schedule until the book arrived again from the publisher, this time accompanied by a note saying the books were not defective and this was a continuing problem with university associated bookstores that had illiterate managers; furthermore, they were considering discontinuing the book from their list due to this perennial problem that put the book in the red.

This novel is amusing, bizarre, not for the timid. The catharsis is that the reader does eventually escape after a meandering journey in exquisitely written prose.