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In honor of Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago, ‘Hamlet’ turns into a romp

Nutshell: A Novel

By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

199 pages, $24.95

By Karen Brady

“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and

count myself king of infinite space – were it not

that I have bad dreams.”

–Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

Ian McEwan creates a “Hamlet” for our times in his latest tour de force, a novel called “Nutshell” that is as hilarious as it is tragic – and so exquisitely written that this reader kept stopping to kiss phrases, then paragraphs and whole pages.

McEwan’s prose can have that effect and is particularly welcome here, given the fact that “Nutshell” is built on a conceit, the novel’s sole narrator being a fetus (or “foetus” as the book’s British spelling has it) who speaks to us from the womb. Luckily, this is an engaging and cerebral fetus, as aware of world culture and events as the dire plot unfolding in the fetus’ unkempt but invaluable London town home.

It is a plot as old as the hills, its specifics whispered between the fetus’ mother and her lover – causing the growing embryo to glean that something is rotten in the world he is about to enter. “I used to think,” he ponders, “that their discretion was no more than ordinary, amorous intimacy. But now I’m certain. They airily bypass their vocal cords because they’re planning a dreadful event.”

This – a prequel to “Hamlet” as we know it – involves Trudy, the mother, and Claude, her inamorato, scheming to do away with the fetus’ father, John, who is not only Trudy’s husband but is also the owner of the once-grand “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Terrace” that Trudy lives in, and the brother of the wayward Claude.

Thus Claude (think Claudius) covets his brother’s kingdom, complete with spouse Trudy (Queen Gertrude) but perhaps not her son, his nephew (herein our narrator, the brainy third-trimester fetus):

“How is it that I, not even young, not even born yesterday, could know so much…?” the fetus posits at one point. “I have my sources, I listen. My mother, Trudy, when she is not with her friend Claude, likes the radio and prefers talk to music. Who, at the Internet’s inception, would have foreseen the rise and rise of radio, or the renaissance of that archaic word ‘wireless’?” I hear, above the launderette din of stomach and bowels, the news, wellspring of all bad dreams. Driven by a self-harming compulsion, I listen closely to analysis and dissent…”

This particular take on “Hamlet” is, of course, a lark – and McEwan imagines the fetus’ life in utero from every conceivable angle, taking obvious delight in the unborn child’s response to his mother’s meal-taking, love-making and elimination of waste. He is a fetus perhaps most fond of the wines his mother imbibes, and, initially her champion, lines up in her corner whenever she is cross with Claude, a property developer “though not as successful as most.”

In fact, Claude is an ignoramus compared to his brother, John, a poet deemed minor by the unappreciative Trudy and Claude but major by his disciples and peers, among these the young Elodie – whose own poems are principally about owls. Our fetus, like a relentless Greek chorus, wonders at Trudy’s choices: “How did she step from John to Claude, from poetry to dribbling cliché?”

He is also drawn to his father and feels he must “for my father’s sake … defend (Elodie): her subject is not so limited, owls being larger than bosons or barnacles, with two hundred species and wide folklorique resonance. Mostly of ill omen …”

McEwan has much to say about poetry here – and about world affairs – all of it on his own poetic terms, his fetus noting, “narrative tension in subplots of local interest: will the Middle East remain in frenzy, will it empty into Europe and alter it for good? Might Islam dip a feverish extremity in the cooling pond of reformation? Might Israel concede an inch or two of desert to those it displaced? Europa’s secular dreams of union may dissolve before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord. Or she might hold her course. I need to know …”

Like Hamlet, that troubled, thinking prince, McEwan’s fetus is restless and torn, unable to see the future, or to know yet what he himself can or cannot change. Leave it to McEwan to turn his Shakespearian tale from tragedy to, essentially, comedy (“the tale has turned tail”) except in its deadly basics and surmises.

Does “Hamlet” work as a romp? For any McEwan fan (and this reader is one), you betcha! Perhaps we associate McEwan with more-serious themes, as in his celebrated historical romance, “Atonement.” Yet humor underlies much of what McEwan writes – and “Nutshell,” with a mega dose of McEwan wit, not only works on every level, but is well worth each one. Plus, it is far from the only new novel based on a Shakespeare play.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death and, among myriad other celebrations, Britain’s Hogarth Press is bringing out several present-day revisions of plays within the Shakespeare canon – including new novels by such luminaries as Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood, and such other best-selling authors as Tracy Chevalier, Gillian Flynn and more.

McEwan is not among the Hogarth cohort, however. Nor is “Nutshell” any real retelling of “Hamlet” – it is a tale based on Shakespeare’s that can easily be read without a nod to the Bard. At its barest bones, in fact, it is but a slim, clever thriller with the grand good fortune of being written by the inimitable McEwan.

“We’ll always be troubled by how things are – that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness,” his fetus mulls while its conniving mother and the platitudinous Claude plan the demise of Claude’s poet/brother John, father to the impending child.

“Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome,” thinks the fetus, and we are charmed – but impotent ourselves in the face of John’s looming demise, trapped as we are with a fetus in a womb. So it is no spoiler to say that the conspirators are not only successful vis-à-vis the “dreadful event” but also that John the poet will return as John the ghost, an apparition beseeching his near-son to revenge.

“Revenge,” considers that near-boy, “the impulse is instinctive, powerful – and forgivable. Insulted, duped, maimed, no one can resist the allure of vengeful brooding. And here, far out at this extreme, a loved one murdered, the fantasies are incandescent … But the raised hand, the violent enactment, is cursed …”

Plus, there is the matter of law enforcement – a chief inspector and a sergeant are “now attached to the case.” How delicious are their exchanges with Trudy and Claude, how we relish every moment with them!

And then – pièce de résistance – the late poet John’s progeny discovers that powerlessness does not mean helplessness and that, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Or perhaps we should say that where there’s an Ian McEwan there’s a way. His “Nutshell,” with or without Hamlet, is, hands down, a winner.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist and dedicated News reviewer.

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