The latest novel from Ian McEwan is a classic tale of murder and deceit, told from a perspective like no other – as you'll discover from reading the opening below
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.
I’m immersed in abstractions, 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. I count myself an innocent, unburdened by allegiances and obligations, a free spirit, despite my meagre living room. No one to contradict or reprimand me, no name or previous address, no religion, no debts, no enemies. My appointment diary, if it existed, notes only my forthcoming birthday. I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are now saying, a blank slate. But a slippery, porous slate no schoolroom or cottage roof could find use for, a slate that writes upon itself as it grows by the day and becomes less blank. I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot. My mother, bless her unceasing, loudly squelching heart, seems to be involved.
Seems, Mother? No, it is. You are. You are involved. I’ve known from my beginning. Let me summon it, that moment of creation that arrived with my first concept. Long ago, many weeks ago, my neural groove closed upon itself to become my spine and my many million young neurons, busy as silkworms, spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea, a notion so simple it partly eludes me now. Was it me? Too self-loving. Was it now? Overly dramatic. Then something antecedent to both, containing both, a single word mediated by a mental sigh or swoon of acceptance, of pure being, something like – this? Too precious. So, getting closer, my idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here’s the crux – is. Just that. In the spirit of Es muss sein. The beginning of conscious life was the end of illusion, the illusion of non-being, and the eruption of the real. The triumph of realism over magic, of is over seems. My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then to avenge it.
My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it.
But I don’t whine in the face of good fortune. I knew from the start, when I unwrapped from its cloth of gold my gift of consciousness, that I could have arrived in a worse place in a far worse time. The generalities are already clear, against which my domestic troubles are, or should be, negligible. There’s much to celebrate. I’ll inherit a condition of modernity (hygiene, holidays, anaesthetics, reading lamps, oranges in winter) and inhabit a privileged corner of the planet – well-fed, plague-free western Europe. Ancient Europa, sclerotic, relatively kind, tormented by its ghosts, vulnerable to bullies, unsure of herself, destination of choice for unfortunate millions. My immediate neighbourhood will not be palmy Norway – my first choice on account of its gigantic sovereign fund and generous social provision; nor my second, Italy, on grounds of regional cuisine and sun-blessed decay; and not even my third, France, for its Pinot Noir and jaunty self-regard. Instead I’ll inherit a less than united kingdom ruled by an esteemed elderly queen, where a businessman-prince, famed for his good works, his elixirs (cauliflower essence to purify the blood) and unconstitutional meddling, waits restively for his crown. This will be my home, and it will do. I might have emerged in North Korea, where succession is also uncontested but freedom and food are wanting.
How is it that I, not even young, not even born yesterday, could know so much, or know enough to be wrong about so much? I have my sources, I listen. My mother, Trudy, when she isn’t 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. Repeats on the hour, regular half- hourly summaries don’t bore me. I even tolerate the BBC World Service and its puerile blasts of synthetic trumpets and xylophone to separate the items. In the middle of a long, quiet night I might give my mother a sharp kick. She’ll wake, become insomniac, reach for the radio. Cruel sport, I know, but we are both better informed by the morning.
And she likes podcast lectures, and self-improving audio books – Know Your Wine, in fifteen parts, biographies of seventeenth-century playwrights, and various world classics. James Joyce’s Ulysses sends her to sleep, even as it thrills me. When, in the early days, she inserted her earbuds, I heard clearly, so efficiently did sound waves travel through jawbone and clavicle, down through her skeletal structure, swiftly through the nourishing amniotic. Even television conveys most of its meagre utility by sound. Also, when my mother and Claude meet, they occasionally discuss the state of the world, usually in terms of lament, even as they scheme to make it worse. Lodged where I am, nothing to do but grow my body and mind, I take in everything, even the trivia – of which there is much.
**The Number One Sunday Times bestseller**
A Daily Telegraph / Guardian / Irish Times / Spectator / Sunday Times / The Times Book of the Year
Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home – a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse – but not with John. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy's womb.
Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world’s master storytellers.
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