Tuesday 12 December 2017

McEwan's in fine foetal form and one Dandy new crime novel

Fiction: Nutshell, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, €19.99

The narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell is a hyper-articulate eight-month-old foetus
The narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell is a hyper-articulate eight-month-old foetus
Nutshell by Ian McEwan

It can be hard to believe that there was a time when Ian McEwan was a deeply strange writer - back in the 1970s, when the Freudian fever dream of The Cement Garden, for instance, gave Martin Amis's early tales of blackheads and erections a prelapsarian shimmer in comparison. These days, the line among McEwan's critics seems to be that, when he's not offering his thoughts about religion or geopolitics at festivals, the "master craftsman" now spends too much time poring over the lives of high-flying professionals, with their airy London houses, bookish vacillations and pedantic breakfast rituals.

Nutshell, his latest novel, feels like an attempt to return to the ghoulish, claustrophobic terrain of his early work. It could also be read as a challenge to his detractors, and he is already convinced that he's going to "get a kicking" for it. There's a strong element of score-settling - and not just because the novel is based on Hamlet (both in plot and in an allusion-per-paragraph sense). The setting is a big house in St John's Wood - but the place is a wreck. Some of the characters are employed - but there's not much to admire about their work. And the narrator is a hyper-articulate, eight-month-old foetus.

In the early days, this foetus had it good: "I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts." But, as with the Danish prince, something rotten encroaches on his kingdom of "infinite space". In fact, he's "hearing pillow talk of deadly intent". His bored, boozy mother Trudy (read: Gertrude) has dumped his father, John, a mooning poet, who inherited the house. Enter John's brother Claude (you've got it now), a crass, grasping property developer who has somehow managed to seduce Trudy. Together, they devise a scheme to get rid of John and cash in on their piece of real estate. There's no poison in the ear, but there are lots of other things you can do with a bottle of antifreeze. Our unborn hero must take action.

It's an intriguing set-up, and one that allows McEwan to do what he's good at. The crime is deftly charted, expertly paced. Much of the writing is lean and queasily vivid (Trudy's womb echoes with "the laundrette din of stomach and bowels"). There are acute insights into the bonds between mothers and sons; fathers and sons; sons and mothers' lovers.

Unfortunately, some of the author's more grating tendencies also creep in.

The voice didn't have to be a problem. After all, we've encountered implausible narrators before. Kafka, an early influence on McEwan, didn't mind letting dogs and mice do the talking. McEwan had a go in Reflections of a Kept Ape, a youthful foray into bestiality. The trouble with Nutshell is that its bold conceit is often spoilt by McEwan's attempts to rationalise it. Trudy, it turns out, is a podcast junkie, her high-class squat alive with the sound of Radio 4. This is why our narrator, despite not having a fully formed skull, talks like a dinner-party sage. He tells us about everything from Ulysses to the sexual mores of the Yanomami - then explains how he came by the knowledge. No doubt there's a shade of irony, but the tension between McEwan's experimental impulse and his desire for authorial control is distracting. Who's really doing the talking?

As a kind of comic balancing act, it might have worked, but there are times when McEwan's incursions are too heavy-handed - often, when he goes for an outright joke. Claude, the most obvious villain, is also a lumbering punchline. We are told that he "knows only clothes and cars", but his real expertise seems to be cliche. His speech is an encyclopaedia of banality.

"No rest for the wicked!" "Blow me down!" Even "These migrants, eh?" On top of this, we are told that Claude wades through "an undergrowth of cliches", wagging a "cliche bloated tongue". It's strange to see a writer as subtle and supple as McEwan reheating a couple of taxi-driver anecdotes to hammer home an unoriginal point about language.

Then there are moments when McEwan ditches plot and narrator for editorialising, with lectures on the future of civilisation - and no-platforming at universities: "Ah! The intellectual life. I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being." Why conjure up the voice of an unborn baby to tell us this?

At one point in Nutshell, the narrator tries to interrupt Trudy and Claude's plot by strangling himself with his umbilical cord. It's a striking flourish that brings together McEwan's enduring strengths - lurid imagination, black humour and the ability to put these at the service of a compelling narrative. But too often the baby's voice has already been drowned out by its creator.


©Daily Telegraph

Crime: Dandy Gilver And A Most Misleading Habit, Catriona McPherson, Hodder and Stoughtan, €27.50

Author Catriona McPherson isn't as well known to crime fans as Val McDermid or the late PD James but she should be. Her series of novels following the adventures of private detective Dandy Gilver, set in the inter-war years, are hugely enjoyable. Dandy is an upper middle-class, middle-aged Scottish lady with a husband and two sons who remain in the background while she and her more level-headed partner Alec Osborne tackle investigations.

McPherson's 11th Dandy book is, like the heroine, a lot of fun. Dandy has taken up residence in an isolated convent on bleak Lanark Moor in an attempt to discover who has been disturbing the nuns. Is it one of the missing inmates who broke out of the insane asylum on New Year's Eve? Or is it an inside job? A Most Misleading Habit combines great storytelling with the style of the 'Golden Age' of crime writing, along with the wryness of retrospect. The period detail is meticulous but not overbearing. Like previous Dandy novels the pleasure comes, not from the big reveal at the end, but from the progress of the story itself. And Dandy herself is always a joy.

Anne Marie Scanlon

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