David Treuer in the Los Angeles Times:
Thesis: The idea behind Ian McEwan’s new novel, “Nutshell”— an imagining of the events leading up to “Hamlet” (Gertrude and Claudius plotting to and then going ahead with killing King Hamlet) set in modern London, with the three principal parts played by John and Trudy and Claude (poet, trophy wife and scheming real estate-dealing brother, respectively) and narrated by Trudy and John’s unborn child in utero — is quite possibly the worst idea for a novel ever.
Antithesis: In McEwan’s hands, the hugely improbable feat of convincingly narrating a novel in the first person from the point of view of a fetus comes alive because McEwan is such a good writer, someone who drives his prose toward the impossible (and has done so throughout his career) in ways that continue to surprise. And a fetus is the perfect spokesling for the as-of-yet-unexplored terrain leading up the bloodbath that is “Hamlet”: How can two people, both of whom must have loved another, conspire to kill another (a spouse), get away with it, and then how do they suffer for what their imaginations made them do? This is the stuff of very good literature.
Discussion: The novel (McEwan’s 17th book) begins with the unnamed fetus uncomfortably crammed in his mother’s uterus some weeks before his inevitable eviction in a state of agitated suspension. Nabokov observed that many novels lurch forward because of eavesdropping (young Marcel spies on the music teacher’s daughter Mademoiselle Vinteuil during a lesbian frolic; the hedges and closets and hallways and fountains of mountain spas are constructed, it seems, to provide Lermontov’s characters with ways of knowing that which they shouldn’t or can’t otherwise). What better place to eavesdrop on a dastardly plot than from the comfort of someone’s womb? That’s what the fetus does from the start: He wombdrops on his mother and her boyfriend as they discuss the fetus’ father, John.