The Short Version: Trudy has separated from John, her poet husband, and shacked up with his brother, Claude. As the two plot John’s murder, there is an additional witness: John & Trudy’s baby, who approaches his nine-month-terminus and relates to us this most unfortunate story of woe…
The Review: When I first heard that Ian McEwan was writing a story set from the perspective of a fetus nearly come to term, I was admittedly a little concerned. Would it be squicky, awkward, the kind of thing that seems like a good idea on a post-it but rather less so once you get into it? The minute I realized, however, that the plot was an adaptation of Hamlet, my opinion immediately reversed: how quickly could I get my hands on it, how loyal would/could McEwan be versus what liberties would he take, could this high-wire act of a concept possibly work?
Happily – and one sometimes forgets this, seeing as he’s more famous for some of his more dour (or at least generally more ‘serious’) work – McEwan has a puckish sense of humor and he evinces a genuine delight in storytelling. Sweet Tooth proved that he liked to have a little fun, even at his own expense, but this novel is the kind that perhaps only an author well into his career can get away with: he is writing to entertain himself and everything after that is icing on the cake. And McEwan is having a ball here: the language blows beyond the purple into some realm of wonderfully overwrought, like an ornate decorative facade that you can’t tear your eyes away from, and the story is so funny and strange that you have no choice but to take it seriously.
Admittedly, it does take a minute to adjust. “So here I am, upside down in a woman,” begins the novel and immediately we must come to terms with the fact that this fetus is like no bairn we’ve ever encountered before. Sired by a neglected poet, weaned in the womb on podcasts and BBC World News and perhaps a little more wine than is strictly allowable, this baby is master of his own domain. He has learned much in his few months of consciousness and while, yes, the literal issue of this fetus’ intelligence level is quite the imaginative leap, McEwan explains the reader’s questions away often enough in the first third of the book that you eventually stop asking them and buy into the fiction: this little Hamlet is conscious, intelligent, and charmingly caught up in a murder plot.
The precocious language is, again, where McEwan seems to be letting himself truly off the leash: it is so rich, so ridiculously full of pomp and grandiosity (this child not only knows his wine vintages, but has thoughts about them that would make Jay McInerney say “teach me”), that you can either grin and let it warm you up, or you can fight against it tooth and claw. From the reactions I’ve seen to this novel, it appears that there are plenty in that latter camp… but why? I too chafe at the overwrought when it is unearned… but McEwan has a gift, a tight focus behind the flowery prose. John Cairncross (incidentally the name of one of the Cambridge Five, which makes me think that McEwan isn’t done with his Cold War interests) is a poet, after all, and McEwan’s love for the form is in full bloom here even as he continues to write in prose.
He also has fun with perhaps the most famous of Shakespearean plots: what if Hamlet actually couldn’t act? The philosophizing and considerations of the human condition take on a tremendously different bent when they are uttered by a being whose entire existence is thought and imagination, who is truly limited from action. And our narrator does digress down philosophical and metaphysical rabbit holes, but they’re all delightful – even as we acknowledge that McEwan’s actual voice has possibly never been closer to the surface. There is a sequence early on where the child reacts to a podcast he’s heard, a lecture that takes a sharp and unvarnished look at the flailing human race and all of its myriad problems across the globe – and the kid considers the world he’s about to be born into, both on a large scale and on the immediate one (his mother sleeping with his father’s brother, a murder plot in the offing), and yet he still comes down on the side of humanity and life. He considers suicide but fails, he contemplates his role in all of the proceedings, and his only action comes at the very end – and it is perhaps too little too late. But isn’t it a brilliant inversion of Hamlet to end not with silence and death but with chaos and birth? “The rest is chaos,” that’s the last line of the novel. Brilliant.
The murder plot itself is also well structured: we spend much of the book waiting for the action and instead dealing with much thinking and considering of it (in this, the plot takes on its own unique adaptive quality) and then, once the pieces are in motion, things speed very quickly along. There are deceptions, misinformation, an Agatha Christie-esque moment of revelation of a single error on the part of the conspirators – and McEwan doesn’t shy away from tipping his hat towards other Shakespearean plots either, lifting a healthy dose of Macbeth when it suits him. I was genuinely engaged, on a very basic level, about whether or not the plot would come off and whether or not they would ultimately be successful. I was, until the end, riveted and curious and needing to turn the page to see what would happen next – all of which is to say that the thrilling mystery aspect of this novel snuck up on me entirely. What a joy, to have a story I know so well given fresh life in this most unexpected of ways!
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Absolutely delightful. McEwan is smiling the whole time he’s writing, you can almost feel it crackling through the pages. The writing is uninhibitedly lush (but never too much, never unearnedly purple), the conceit well-considered while simultaneously being openly acknowledged as a little silly, and McEwan’s love for that most particular English tradition of poetical writing (whether plays, poetry, or even just well-wrought prose) allows him to honor the greats who’ve come before him and to say, as a great author well past having to prove anything to anybody, “and now, let’s have some fun.” Open yourself to this one and embrace the absurdity. I promise you’ll enjoy it – and it may bring a little light to this rotten state of the world.