An Unborn Baby Overhears Plans for a Murder

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New York Times:

IanWe might begin with Hamlet, of course, but we may also begin with Abhimanyu. Locked inside his mother’s womb — as one version of the Mahabharata story runs — Abhimanyu overhears his father, Arjuna, discussing a well-known battle strategy with his wife. It involves a military formation called the “disk”: A murderous rank of enemy soldiers forms around a warrior in a perfect spiral, and seven steps, carried out in precise sequence, can penetrate that deadly labyrinth, permitting escape. Abhimanyu listens intently — at times, the thrumming drone of his mother’s aorta next to his tiny ear is near-deafening — but as Arjuna speaks, his mother dozes off to sleep. The conversation stops. The final route of escape — the seventh step — is left unmentioned.

Ian McEwan’s compact, captivating new novel, “Nutshell,” is also about murderous spirals and lost messages between fathers and unborn sons, although it’s the father’s fate that hangs in the balance here. I promise not to give away the formidable genius of the plot — but the premise, loosely, is this: Trudy, jittery and fragile, lives in a London townhouse as dilapidated as it is valuable, where she spends hot afternoons coldly plotting the murder of her husband, John. She is heavily pregnant with John’s son. They have separated, their love spent; he inspires nothing more in her than a “retinal crust of boredom.” He has moved to Shoreditch (or “sewer-ditch,” as it used to be known), where he scrapes out a living as a poet and publisher. John may or may not be in love with an aspiring poet named Elodie, who writes about owls, and whose name rhymes with “threnody” — a lamentation to the dead. The accomplice to this murder — “clever and dark and calculating” but also “dull to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention . . . a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones . . . whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble” — is Claude, a real estate developer. Claude — Hamlet’s Claudius — needs no literary disguise: He is John’s brother, a prosperous brute of a man with whom Trudy (Gertrude) is having an affair.

More here.