Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

I have read many novels by McEwan, often because I am fascinated by his premise, as I am again here. But I am often disappointed by his work, as well, because at the end I do not accept his frame of reference, his view of the world or of his characters. And both factors are again reflected in this work.

The fascinating premise in this 2016 work is that the narrator of this novel is an unborn baby. Which is made more intriguing because he is witnessing a plot by his mother, Trudy, to murder his father, John, her estranged husband. The disappointment comes for me in the execution of the baby’s narration. First, it is overwritten. It is too poetic, too descriptive, too intellectualized. I will accept that through the hearing of voices and sounds an unborn child might envisage some of the existence he is about to enter. And through taste and feel get even more of a hint about what his future existence will be like. But this unborn surmises far too much. He also thinks too deeply and interprets too broadly what his senses detect, far more than I am willing to accept.

On the other hand, Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times loved this novel, declaring that it “possesses all the verbal gifts of its creator.” That the narrator is, “by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent.” He is, indeed, all of those things, except it is not really him; this is McEwan’s, the author’s, verbal gifts. And the result for me is a false perspective that reflects an author showing off, showing he can get away with breaking literary rules, just as his two villains are breaking moral and legal rules. Indeed, at the end of her review Kakutani writes: “It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus would be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his slight of hand.” Oh, yes, he does, he surely does.

What also works against this novel is that the two plotters, by both their nature and their actions, lack any sympathy. Indeed, it becomes a chore to read this overwritten narrative about these two manipulating people. I neither care about them nor admire their cleverness as Trudy, the baby’s mother, and Claude her lover, the brother of the baby’s father, conspire to murder John, the unsuspecting victim. Nor does it help one relate to the villains that Trudy is more enthralled by Claude’s sexual prowess than by his intelligence and sterling character. How, one wonders, can she prefer this dull, crass real estate mogul to her sensitive, if striving, poet husband?

Indeed, husband John seems such a straight-forward character that one wonders if the author will let the plot succeed. And then, once the couple have acted, they begin to disagree, and almost turn on each other. But such a reversal seems to come more from the author than from the villainous pair. And, indeed, as they seem to be more motivated by self-preservation, they become still more unsympathetic and more unattractive.

The author attempts a certain complexity when the unborn narrator contrasts a baby’s natural love for his mother with the hatred this one feels for what she is doing. Where do his loyalties lie? He moves back and forth between dreams of proving her innocence and worrying about a life in which he’ll be moved from one prison to another. But he also resents that, amid all her plotting, she thinks only of herself and her lover, and rarely of him.

But with all the narrator’s deep certainty about the complex world he is about to enter, he is not clear about other things. Or at least the author wishes us to be. Does his father John have a lover of his own, the poet Elodie, or is she honest in saying there was no affair? And does John still truly love his betraying wife, as he claims? But such issues do not equate to the complex fate of the narrator. Instead, they lead back to: will or will not the lovers execute their plot, and, if they do, will or will not they be caught?

Which leads us to the ending. And for me, more dissatisfaction. It seems intended to be inevitable. And also intended to give the unborn child a role in deciding the fate of the two villains. After all, he cannot be passive right through until the end, can he? The result is, for me an unusual ending, yes, but an undramatic one. And an unfulfilling one for a literary work. Like the entire structure of the novel, it is more in keeping with the structure of a mystery novel. Which it does evolve into at the end, in fact, when the police enter the scene. And when the reader is distracted from the fate of the baby to follow the fate of the villainous couple.

The nutshell of the title, incidentally, is from a line in Shakespeare. It refers to the narrator’s confinement in the womb and the lack of movement he endures. Of which McEwan continually reminds the reader. As a metaphor, however, it is more provocative than meaningful. Is it a reminder of how limited the narrator is physically, even as his mind, and is it just his consciousness, the possibilities, that wander? Reviewers also refer to the parallels with Hamlet, with the baby a questioning Hamlet and Trudy and Claude standing in for Gertrude and Claudius, while the quote’s bad dreams refers to their dastardly plot, the evil that exists in the world this baby is about to enter.

McEwan was surely pleased with this novel. One can envision him chuckling as he writes, relishing his witty comment on the complex world his narrator is about to enter. But wit can carry one only so far, even if the baby can select whatever he wishes to comment upon and stretch his thinking in any direction. For, there must be action, and the only action left here is the lover’s plot. Thus, McEwan loses control, and cannot help turning to the perfidious act to be performed, then to the justice to be administered and the role of his narrator in seeking such justice. He has lost, for me, his literary cache, and become himself trapped in what is basically a mystery novel. The emotional entanglement among the four actors, father, mother, son, and lover, as well as the morality of their actions, fades into a final theatrical act that is all drama, without a sign of further moral complexity. (October, 2017)

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

This 2014 work is a perfect little novel. It is short in length and simple in its story of Judge Fiona Maye. But it is perfect in its structure and rich in its meaning. The richness is in its exploration of the justice that Fiona has to administer. And the perfection is in her personal story that contrasts to the blind administration of justice. An administration that must leave aside the emotions that follows Fiona down every courtroom corridor.

When we meet Fiona, she has been told by her husband Jack that he still loves her, does not want to leave her, but that he wants to have an affair with a younger woman, not least because he and Fiona have not made love for two months and he needs one more fling at ecstasy. She becomes very angry at this proposed betrayal, although we can see she feels a certain guilt at having ignored his feelings for the sake of her career.

And that career is a fascinating one. She is a British High Court judge who has been assigned to handle family disputes, and we are led to understand how deeply she is caught up in her legal career by following her consideration of two disputes. In one case, a Jewish father wishes to raise two daughters within his conservative community, while his wife desires a more liberal education that will prepare the girls for today’s world. In another case, Siamese twins are born to a Catholic family; and both will die, unless there is an operation that will kill one baby in order that the other may survive.

What makes these cases so alive is that Fiona evaluates both sides of each dispute, understands why different parts of a family feel the way they do, and balances the good and the bad that will result from her support for either argument. And, as a result, one is not sure of her decision until the time she gives it. Nor is it lost on the reader that while her decisions tend to favor the liberal side in each controversy, she confronts her personal issue with her husband from a more traditional perspective.

But while her dispute with her husband permeates her thinking throughout the novel, it is another family dispute that dominates this book. It concerns Adam, the teenage son of a Jehovah’s Witness couple. He is seriously ill, and needs a blood transfusion to survive, but both he and his parents say a transfusion will be against their faith, that the bible says God has decreed that no one is to allow a foreign substance (such as another person’s blood) to enter their bodies.

The novel’s title comes from an actual act of Parliament that all legal decisions regarding children must consider first the welfare of the child. And “welfare,” of course, can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the given situation. And a major strength of this novel is the depth with which this conflict between religion and the state is explored. Like the confect between religion and science, it is a common theme in McEwan’s novels. Indeed, the conflicts here, first with Jewish parents and then Catholic parents seems deliberate.

But each evaluation here is so balanced on either side that neither the reader (forgetting that we are reading McEwan) nor Fiona is sure what her decision is going to be. Whereupon, she makes a major decision that will join Adam’s issue to that of her own personal dispute with her husband. It is a literary decision, of course, by author McEwan, for two such major themes need to come together. But it is also a personal decision that will have a major impact on her life, when she decides she must meet the young Adam.

For she becomes attached to him as a person. In fact, she sees him as the son that she and her husband were too busy to have. And Adam, in responding to her attention, becomes more real to the reader, making her decision about him still more important. But, more significantly, he begins pursuing her, thinking he has discovered her love, whereas it is only her compassion.

And so the novel moves toward the resolution of the two situations: both Fiona with her husband, and Fiona with Adam. There is a certain contrast in those resolutions, but both do work for me. Not least because one affects the other. Other critics, however, have felt the original juxtaposition is too calculated, and not realistic. But I see it as the author’s premise. What would happen to this highly intellectual judge when confronted by an emotional situation?

I might also note that religion does not often come out on top in McEwan’s work. In Adam’s case, even a little irony is involved in his final decision. But because he and the people in Fiona’s other cases are treated so understandingly as human, I can go along with the outcomes here. For most of these characters hold to their beliefs with complete sincerity. What is missing from McEwan’s presentations are the religious reasons behind these moral conflicts, but it is the conflicts that are at the heart of literature, not religious rationales.

Where the critics may be on sounder ground concerns the resolution of Fiona’s conflict with her husband Jack. In this case, I was not entirely convinced, perhaps because it involves a shift in Jack’s response and also introduces a certain convenience for these two characters. But the balance it offers to her judicial outcomes provides a certain literary justification. She has caused pain in one character, and it is not in her to cause pain in another.

What has impressed me, but not other critics, is the neatness with which McEwan has created these characters and this situation. Not the logical reality but the logical balance. It is what contributes to the “littleness” of this novel, its simplicity. It’s a simplicity that recalls for me Hersey’s A Single Pebble or Edmundo Desnoes’ Inconsolable Memories. That is, it is not a complex work, but it has complex ramifications, in this case the emotional impact on a rational being. It is not about the conflict between religion and science. It is about the conflict within one person when those two elements collide. (August, 2016)

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

McEwan certainly had fun writing this 2012 novel. It recalls the finale of a Christie tour de force, which I did anticipate here, but only just before the ending. Perhaps because it was the kind of ending another writer might anticipate.

This is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) an innocent young graduate who has an affair with a married college tutor named Tony Canning, a suitor who jilts her but recommends her for a job with the domestic counterintelligence unit, MI5. The main portion of the novel is about that job, in which she is assigned to work with a writer friendly to the Western allies, Tom Haley, a writer that MI5 agrees to support financially without his knowledge in the hope that this writer will create works sympathetic to the English cause. The project is given the name of Sweet Tooth, presumably because such money is so tantalizing, but it also reflects for me the artificiality and lack of substance behind this novel.

The novel’s momentum begins on the very first page when Serena confesses that, “Almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The secret mission to support the writer takes place in the early 1970s, when English politics was in turmoil, there was unrest in Ireland and a Suez crisis, and the Arabs threatened the economy by raising the cost of oil. But while this political environment adds texture to the novel, it has no impact on Serena’s mission.

We read, however, to learn how that mission by Serena turned into a love affair. And it is a measure of McEwan’s craft that he makes her reaction to Tom believable. For Serena is never sure of her future, or of her professionalism, when she is drawn emotionally to this client, and never sure of him if she should tell him her role in providing money. In fact, she is ordered not to tell him. Not until the very end, however, do we realize how significant is that forty-year gap between the events being described and the publication of what we are reading.

The complications of Serena falling in love with the innocent Tom, and being ordered not to tell him why she has entered his life, introduces the main theme of this novel. This is the complexity that results from deceit and hypocrisy—especially when the deceit and hypocrisy has an honorable purpose. Indeed, such honorable purposes go back to Canning’s initial betrayal, as well as to Serena’s potential betrayal of Tom and his eventual betrayal of her. And, of course, to McEwan’s betrayal, in a sense, of the reader.

As I was reading this novel, it seemed to be a lightweight entry in the McEwan canon. It simply offered the complexity of a love affair against an espionage background. Would she or wouldn’t she, reveal to him her true role in MI5? And would he or wouldn’t he, accept her love as real? I was also bothered by the extensive descriptions of Tom’s shorter fiction. What was the purpose of this? For the examples were not that interesting. But I had underestimated McEwan. The answer would come in his surprise ending.

This work truly captures the infighting that takes place within governmental departments, in this case among counterintelligence people whose job is to create artificial worlds in order to deceive others. And who encourage betrayal in order to achieve their own ends. The virtues of truth vs. the benefits of deceit. But it also exposes such hypocrisy, and it presents people on both sides of the issue. It is reminiscent of LeCarre’s portrait of the espionage business.

While Kakutani’s review in the Times is more negative than mine is, she does have a point when she writes: “McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing.” In other words, that life is a creation just as is art, a creation by ourselves of our own life; and that there is also deception in both writing and spying, in the creation of worlds that are not factually real.

My reaction is that making this point through a love affair is not giving the crux of Serena’s dilemma enough substance. Destroying one’s own love affair is no match for destroying the lives of other human beings. As an aside, I would also note that Kakutani has tended recently to summarize a book’s content rather than truly analyze it—simply conveying her evaluation in a few telling phrases, such as using “a clever but annoying novel” and “self-conscious contrivance,” to describe this work.

Serena’s character certainly reflects this novel’s approach to artificial reality. She reads a lot of fiction, which is an artificial world. She also says she reacts to characters rather than to themes or descriptions. And this novel’s style also reflects that. A political atmosphere, yes, it does have. But this work is primarily based on the nuances of character, such as in her emotional reactions to the men she meets, to Canning, to her bosses in MI5, and, eventually, to Tom, the man she loves.

On another level of her character, she prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austin, which challenges the reader’s perception of her as a reliable judge of fiction, especially Tom’s fiction, which, as I said, McEwan later explains. But this serves primarily to cap off the metafictional aspect of this novel. For critics have noted that Tom’s fiction often mirrors the early fiction of McEwan himself. Which might be taken as self-criticism, but also, perhaps, of laziness by McEwan.

While disappointing overall, this novel does not turn me off McEwan’s future fiction. I simply would hope that he selects a more significant theme and probes more deeply into it. He can still deal with fiction and reality, but on the level of Atonement, not of Sweet Tooth. I am also not a fan of metafiction, unless it serves to convey an interpretation of mankind, rather then, as here, an O’Henry surprise. (February, 2016)