In Ian McEwan’s brilliantly realised latest novel, Prince Hamlet literally does find himself ‘bounded in a nutshell’, or rather, a womb. We meet this unlikely narrator in his third trimester, ‘thoughts and head fully engaged’, already with a startling array of knowledge of the outside world ranging from Ulysses to Pinot Noir (gleaned, we are given to understand, from his insomniac mother’s podcast and drinking habits). And he is party to a plot: the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle and his beautiful mother. His inaction is in this case situational; his paralysis made literal.
‘Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose’, he remarks peevishly as the conspirators consummate their incestuous affair. There is an offbeat comic element in the narrator’s voice: arch, camp, at once knowing and innocent. He holds noble ideals, philosophising at length on them, but he is ultimately concerned with his own best interests, and is piqued when others are not. Any book so bound up in a conceit and in its own verbal fireworks at times runs the risk of being a bit clever-clever. But on the whole we accept in a suspension of disbelief the foetus’s pompous mastery of language and imagery and abandon ourselves to the sheer eloquent pleasure of this hilarious romp.
Words – Liza Cox