In Ian McEwan’s latest book the closeness to Shakespeare’s Hamlet is everywhere made clear. The plotters are named Trudy (Gertrude) and Claude (Claudius) and the epigraph is a quote from Hamlet:
Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space- were it not that I have bad dreams
Who, then you ask, is the Hamlet figure? Here he is, presented in one of the most stunning first lines of any novel.
So here I am, upside down in a woman.
And there is our hero, protagonist, narrator, a thirty-eight week foetus, waiting impatiently to be born. He speaks of the confined space he occupies, and the rush of the constant pumping of blood from his mother’s heart. He can also hear every conversation she has, and is reluctantly present at her love-making. And this is significant because his mother is not making love with his father, and the conversations she has with her lover concern ways of getting rid of his father, even perhaps killing him.
He is his mother’s constant companion and to this he attributes his knowledge of wine and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Through her he listens to podcasts and the BBC World Service. As he says,
I even tolerate the BBC World Service and its puerile blasts of synthetic trumpets and xylophone to separate the items.
One has to willingly suspend disbelief; the explanations about podcasts and eavesdropping aren’t quite convincing. This foetus has the voice of a Nabakov, a character from Banville or Anthony Powell. Elevated tastes, the voice of a cultured elderly man. But still it’s amusing. It’s clear his mother is not quite up to him in terms of intelligence or ethics.
She drinks too much. This poor foetus is often crying out for a little water or even some food, while she just nibbles salted peanuts. And he very quickly finds that her lover, Claude, is the brother of John, her husband. The dull banal Claude who repeats his jokes, who loves to introduce himself
‘Claude, as in Debussy.’
is a wealthy businessman, a greedy lustful man in every sense. His brother, John, the supposed father of our narrator, is a gentle poet, who foolishly tries to please Trudy by fulfilling her every command.
She has persuaded him to leave her alone in his rambling decrepit family home, which in spite of the filth she is accumulating, is worth tons of money (that’s why Claude wants it). The lovers spend their time drinking and plotting and Claude has soon worked out a fool-proof method of killing John. Some time during all this Elodie The Owl Woman turns up with John, and he tells Claude and Trudy that he knows they are lovers and that he wants them to move out.
There are many strands in this story and I haven’t yet made clear how gripping it is. Will they, wont they? What is John really like, is he smarter than he seems? Do they kill him? It takes quite some time to find out.
There is also quite a disturbing aspect to this story. As our narrator points out, his mother never speaks about his arrival, she has no clothes or baby accoutrements prepared for him and once he thinks he hears her allude to allude to disposing of him to someone else after he is born. He is trapped in a combination of boredom and terror. At one point he tries to commit suicide but it doesn’t work. The other aspect of his thinking is that he doesn’t seem to realise that being a baby is quite limiting for some time:
I begin to suspect that my helplessness is not transient. Grant me all the agency the human frame can bear, retrieve my young panther self of sculpted muscle and long cold stare, direct him to the most extreme, measure – killing his uncle to save his father.
But the reader is thinking of the nappies and boarding school that must come before the wine and sports cars.
Of course I am not going to reveal the ending, but it is just to some extent, if a little hard on our hero.
An hilarious and gripping read. Perfect for that last minute gift, even if the baby is not the usual Christmassy sort.