As pregnant Trudy awaits the imminent birth of her baby boy, the unborn child narrates a tale of duplicitous deceit involving his parents. In a highly unusual first person narrative, the full-term fetus tells a tale of intrigue in which his pretty blonde mother and her lover plot to kill the baby’s father.
John Cairncross, Trudy’s estranged husband, is an aspiring British poet and literary publisher. He likes to recite poetry from memory, is a push-over in his business dealings, and suffers from scaly hands caused by the skin disease psoriasis. Unbeknownst to him, his younger brother Claude, a prosperous but empty-headed land developer, has supplanted John in Trudy’s affections.
John has moved out of the couple’s valuable London townhome at Trudy’s urging—ostensibly to give her “space” during the emotional roller coaster of her pregnancy. Meanwhile Claude makes surreptitious visits to Trudy at the townhouse and they lead a dissolute, alcohol-soaked lifestyle interspersed with sweaty couplings and plots to wrest the valuable real estate from John.
John is portrayed as an effete academic with romantic tendencies and nothing much in common with his brother Clause other than the accident of having the same parents. When John shows up at the marital house with a female companion, it becomes evident that he isn’t as gullible as he first appears. It transpires that he plans to evict his unfaithful wife Trudy and it’s at that point that Trudy and Claude put their murderous plans into action.
The unnamed baby is both a sentient and cynical witness to the love triangle between his parents and his uncle. His inconvenient impending birth elicits the information that his mother plans to ditch him with a caregiver as soon as possible after giving birth. In lesser hands, this jaded “baby monologue” might read like afternoon soap opera fodder, but McEwan, the bestselling British author of at least 14 novels, has a literary voice that transcends the low subject matter.
The reader knows how this “ménage a trois” is likely to play out in the end, but McEwan’s “infant terrible” narrator makes the whole thing seem new and fresh. One seemingly unanswered question is how the unborn narrator gets his experience of the world sufficient to make judgments on character and the human condition. McEwan suggests that this is because the mother spends her spare time during pregnancy listening to recorded courses and podcasts that become part of her unborn child’s frame of reference.
This book uses a very clever narrative device and does not disappointment in terms of suspense, but McEwan’s characters are simply unlikeable specimens of humanity. Even given rosy background information about how Trudy Cairncross first became emotionally involved with her dead husband, the reader is unlikely to see much sentimentality or empathy in such self-absorbed characters. In a recent interview with an Australian newspaper, author Ian McEwan remarks of his novel Nutshell, “I had a romantic notion that women should be the repository of all high moral value, but life has taught me that badness can be evenly distributed across the sexes.”
Lisa Kobrin is a Reference Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.