The Nutshell is a highly acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan. It is a brilliant story which is both a fantastic flight of fancy and a sharply observed, gritty tale of murder. With the overlay of compelling comments on the state of humanity.
The plot in a nutshell
An unborn baby is the protagonist (no, that’s not a typo). By listening through the womb, he discovers that his mother-to-be plans to kill his father, John, to continue her affair with John’s brother, Claude.
The baby is outraged but helpless. He ‘witnesses’ John’s poisoning and the subsequent police sympathy for the pregnant widow (Trudy), on the assumption that John was a suicide. But the police become suspicious. Trudy and Claude decide to flee. The baby is desperate to stop them.
You can read a fuller summary by clicking the link.
The literary rules he breaks
I’ve already written how amateur writers break writing rules at their peril but here is an example of where, in the hands of an experienced writer, they can be trampled upon to great effect.
I want to concentrate on the cracked literary rules, but there are also many more exciting features. I encourage you to read a review to get more on these aspects.
Inherently unlikely premise
Really, the story of an unborn baby—ridiculous. You’re supposed to write characters with whom the reader can identify. We’ve all been fetuses of course, but I think I may say with confidence that none of us told stories from the womb.
Impossible, and yet by the end of the first page, I’ve bought it. And the erudition of the baby who pronounces insightfully on the world he has yet to enter. Some of this acceptance can be attributed to the authority of the author. McEwan’s mastery of the language and confidence makes it easy to fall into his world, no matter how unusual.
Both omniscient narrator and first person
The unborn baby is the first person narrator. Typically, writers should stick with one point of view. It encourages identification with the protagonist and focuses the story. But McEwan doesn’t allow the strait jacket he has chosen hold him back. He enters into every character’s mind to further the story and is a fly on the wall for events the baby could not have been present for. Again, we move seamlessly from one perspective to another, hardly noticing.
The protagonist doesn’t act
I’ve already written a post on avoiding passive observers as main characters. A protagonist needs to act to achieve his goals. He can’t just stand around wringing his hands. Otherwise, the reader loses interest or gains impatience.
A baby in a womb. Is there a better definition of an inactive witness? Okay, he tries unsuccessfully to strangle himself with the umbilical cord, but for the most part, he can do nothing but observe. And I am right there, watching with him.
So, that’s just three rules trampled over. There are more, one of which I will go into more detail in the next post.
The Nutshell reinforces what I have said before—there are general rules for writing which master craftspeople can use with ease but also know when to break in the service of the story. You can do it also if (and only if) you have the same facility.
This primarily mechanical breakdown of the novel is not, I hope, how you experience it if you have read it or will (sorry, the tense agreements got a bit tangled up there). Because there’s a lot of fairy dust in the novel, too.