Nutshell by Ian McEwan – Review

Posted in Reviews, Three Star
on January 21, 2018
Nutshell

Interesting. That’s the word that springs to mind when trying to sum up my thoughts on Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. It is very interesting.

It is an interesting concept; the idea of modern-day Hamlet as foetus. And it works. Assuming, that is, that you suspend your disbelief for a moment, and go along with the idea that a foetus is capable of cognitive thought. (My favourite review of this book refers to it as a ‘Womb with a View’. Very droll).

I’ve been trying to write my review of this for a while. I keep circling back to it – not quite sure on which side of the fence I am sitting on. (How very Hamlet of me, indeed). For the most part, I enjoyed it, but there was something that wasn’t quite right at the same time.

But let us start at the beginning.

Nutshell is set in the present(ish) day. We find Trudy, 9 months pregnant with Hamlet as foetus. She has left her husband, John, a struggling poet, but taken up residence in his multi-million pound, but dilapidated townhouse in London. She has taken as a lover, Claude, playing out the betrayal we see in the play, and the novel follows the course of their relationship as they decide how to eliminate John (and his claim to the house) from their lives.

In Nutshell the betrayal is very much more tangible than in the play of Hamlet. For starters, Trudy has actively betrayed her still living husband – not the memory of him. And, as the book unfolds, we see the differences between Trudy and Gertrude. Trudy is a much less sympathetic character, actively complicit – indeed a driving force – for her ex-husband’s murder. The motivation of Claude and Trudy are much simpler, being as they are purely financial. It’s not just Trudy who has different characteristics than the book. John is a weak character, easily pushed about – unlike what we hear of Old Hamlet in the play. The inactiveness of Hamlet himself is down to physical restrictions, rather than mental. Claude is often closer to Polonius than Claudius, with his self indulgent pontifications.

Ay, there’s the rub. Nutshell is similar yet different to its source material. Hamlet, itself, is a very complex play, full of intricacies, double-meaning, and bits to puzzle out, so by changing and simplifying the plot in the way that McEwan has, you are going to lose a lot of this. Even by just removing the royal-family element of the plot and replacing it with financial gain, you lose the complexity of court life, and the real motivation of usurping power. And with a purely financial agreement, the story and the motivation is, by implication, weaker. Added too that we have a Hamlet in the know, indeed a Hamlet trying to prevent, rather than revenge – which turns the original on its head. So much of Hamlet is about him learning who he can trust, and indeed, doubting what he has seen – this is not the case for the self-assured Foetus Hamlet that we meet in Nutshell.

Perhaps then, it is this which has had me sitting on the fence, because Nutshell is a very clever book in a number of ways, but it falls down in comparison to the original. Shakespeare is a lot to live up to; Hamlet itself has a huge heritage. It is a lot to live up to. It is impossible to view Nutshell without comparing it – and indeed comparison should be welcome (since why would you write something like this if it wasn’t). But it will always be a harsh comparison. For me, some of McEwan’s authorial decisions weaken the overall novel. But, nevertheless, there are still a number of interesting elements to the book that has been written.

Firstly, of course, the concept of Foetus as narrator. I believe this has been explored before – but I have to confess, I’ve not read anything which uses this device. Now you have to take this, and the “science”, with a pinch of salt. The foetus is clearly biased, and we are relying on his interpretation of events (which mirrors the play, where the audience is told much more than it ever sees). However, the interpretation is much more straightforward in many respects,  because it is peppered with events which are also reported in a fairly straight manner (more on them, later). The foetus – just as play Hamlet does – has an obsessional love for his mother. He overlooks many of her failings (her over-indulgence in wine, lots of wine, at nine months pregnant, for example) and although he does reprimand her for certain things, his anger is largely directed at Claude. So far so similar, but then of course, it diverges. As a foetus, he has what play Hamlet so desires – utter closeness to his mother. He is literally at one with her. Where she goes, he goes; they cannot be separated (until he is born, which does seem to cause him some anxiety); she is his.

And that changes things. He is complicit in his father’s murder. He sees their plotting. He knows the plan. It’s the opposite to the play because we meet Hamlet before. Whereas play-Hamlet is paralysed from acting after from his own indecision, and his fear of what may happen next, book-hamlet is paralysed physically. Although he knows what is going to happen, he is unable to stop it because there is a physical barrier between him and the world in which the action takes place. The future is more certain – at some point Hamlet will be born, and they will murder his father – and it is the foetus’ powerlessness that we feel very keenly as readers. Though he does consider devising a plan of action to save his father, it is ultimately his loyalty to his mother which wins.

There are further costs to him being so close to his mother. The things that Play-Hamlet accuses Gertrude of are literally played out in the book. The relationship with Claude; the ‘frailty’ of women – all of it. In many respects, the closeness that Play Hamlet dreams of, is also his worst nightmare. We see his breakdown in the play when he thinks of Gertrude and Claudius together – and there he only has supposition and assumption. Here, he has a front row seat – literally. He is there when they make love. He is there when they plot. He is always there and he cannot escape.

Because Hamlet is always there, and because of the setting of the novel, it does lose a lot of the play’s metaphorical power. One example – being poisoned in the ear has the double meaning of words and act.  A glycol laced smoothie is far too millenial for that. The grand and impressive Hamlet’s father is reduced to a snivelling and somewhat pathetic shell of its origin character. It’s hard for us – and indeed for Hamlet – to admire him. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, stemming from the poison in the ears and in the minds of the characters in the play. This is not so here – a delipidated house does not have the same power. Neither does the motive of money. Trudy stands only to lose, not gain, from her ex-husband (a man so clearly besotted with her that he will let her have anything if it means she will not leave him). That Trudy is so involved with the murder seems a little forced. She becomes almost the Lady Macbeth to Claude’s Polonius.

Something else I feel is a little lacking is in the characterisation. Trudy lacks the emotional and intellectual nuances that we see from Gertrude. She doesn’t go through the state of realisation that Gertrude does as she starts to see Claudius for who he really is. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic, but for me a large part of the tragedy in Hamlet is that for all their flaws, there are some sympathetic characters and with a little more understanding, perhaps a different ending may have been possible. I can’t see that in Nutshell. It’s a shame too to miss out on the more endearing or steady characters (Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, and Gertrude as she is portrayed in the play). Without these  Without these buffers the whole cast is dangerously close to being completely unlikeable, self-absorbed and selfish.

For all my criticisms, I do think it is an exceptionally clever book – if a little unsatisfying to read. It is not designed to be a copy of the play, so perhaps it is a little unfair of me to contrast it so sharply. Being a short novel, based off the longest Shakespearian play comes into it too. If you were to explore all the themes set up by Shakespeare you would need something along the lines of War and Peace in length! Hamlet has a lot of heritage, it is a particularly well studied play, and it was a particularly ambitious project with McEwan chose. Bearing that in mind, should I even be surprised that the idea was better than the execution? One of the next books I intend to read is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her retelling of The Tempest. I’ll be interested to see how that compares….

3 out of 5 Stars.

In which I discover FanFiction…

Posted in Opinion, Personal
on August 28, 2017
writing-fanfiction

I have a confession to make.

I’ve been unfaithful to this blog.

I’ve been writing somewhere else.

And I’ve liked it.

I know it’s been radio silence here for a while – I’ve got about six half finished blogs I need to complete and upload, most of which are now hideously out of date. But I’ve actually, word count wise, written much more in my absence than I normally would here.

You see; I’ve been writing FanFiction. (Phew. That felt good to get off my chest).

And what’s more, people are actually reading it. (More than can be said for this blog!). And liking it. And commenting.

In a couple of months I’ve written 50K words of my story. (No. I’m not going to link. No, I’m not going to tell you what category it’s under. But, if you know me, you’ll probably be able to work it out/find it).

50k is somewhere between a third and half of a novel. And I’ve stuck with it, and I’m still going. I’m not saying it’s novel-worthy content – it certainly took me a few chapters to get into my stride – but it’s a start. It’s got me back into the swing of writing a little each night. It’s got me thinking about plot, characterisation, language (y’know, the fundamentals of writing). Most importantly, I’ve remembered the absolute joy I feel when I get lost in the midst of a plot.

So, I hear you ask, why FanFiction? Why not plunge straight back into the deep end again and start my attempt at a novel number 752?

Well partly, because I’ve run out of plot ideas after so many failed attempts at writing my novel, but that aside, I think FF is a fantastic tool for any aspiring writer.

There’s a discipline to FanFiction which you don’t necessarily have when you create everything yourself – particularly around characterisation. When characters already exist, have been established and have a large fan base there is a lot to live up to. The best FanFiction is able to get under the skin of characters someone else has created. There are some universes which have lots of character background to go from (think Harry Potter, or similar), but there are others where there are only a few episodes, or short books to go from – and in either case to be able to understand creations which aren’t your own is an art. Some of the stories I have read deserve to be published in their own right (of course, they can’t be, since they borrow other’s creations); but the quality of writing is so much higher than you often come across in the world of modern publishing. (*cough* ghostwritten books “by” celebrities to name just one, hideous, example).

Another aspect of FanFiction which is, somewhat, unusual is the convention of uploading a chapter as and when you have written it, rather than posting the whole fic in one go. (Of course, some authors have the discipline to write the whole thing first and then upload it in snippets, but they are better people than I). It’s a different, more immediate way of writing. And it also means that if you want to carry your readers along for the whole ride, you’ve got to be writing something pretty good. Back in the day, it was fairly common for books to be serialised (think Dickens’ Bleak House, which started off as a serial, and ran for 18 months – no wonder it’s so long and convoluted!). There’s something very freeing about being able to publish something as soon as you’ve finished it – without second guessing yourself too much. I’ve sat on beginnings of books for years because I’m too scared to show anyone. This removes all of that.

Which isn’t to say you don’t need to take care over the writing and editing…If the writing is poor (and yes, for all the good writing in FF, there is a lot which doesn’t quite cut the mustard); people aren’t going to subscribe to you, they won’t come back to keep reading – so there is an implied pressure to keep up the quality of your chapters. All of this is good – of course. I can normally tell if my writing is good or not, or if I’ve put out a weaker chapter, but having this confirmed is very useful. Ultimately, it’s what makes you a better writer.

And then, there’s the community; the people in the FanFiction world are great (at least all the ones I’ve come across). Writing can be very solitary at times – and it can be hard to write without distraction. Knowing that when you upload a new chapter people will comment, and “like” it, and post about it elsewhere is a very powerful motivational force. And what’s more, the majority of people won’t just give you a line or two saying ‘Great Chapter, I love it!’; they’ll give you a full critique, which often runs to paragraphs of them discussing your work. This is gold-dust as far as a writer is concerned, it’s such a valuable resource to be able to tap into.

Commenters don’t often have harsh criticism. They tend to focus on the positives (which is lovely for a delicate snowflake like myself) – but there is still a lot to be gained from this. You can look at the bits they like, and then if there’s anything they haven’t mentioned – or a repeatedly ignored section – then you can have a hard look at them again and work out why they don’t quite read properly. It puts onus on you, but it’s a good inbetween reviewing the work yourself and having a big-scary-editor type pull it apart. Plus encouragement is needed sometimes – to get yourself into the discipline of writing regularly, and in a style that people are receptive to, you do need a little boost here and there.

I’ve learnt more than I thought I would in my few months in the fanfiction world. I’m mostly flabbergasted that anyone would actually read my writing, and eternally grateful that they have. I think it really is the people, and their support which makes writing for it so enjoyable. I’d encourage anyone who’s suffering from a bit of writer’s block, or just wants to write something for fun for a change to give it ago. Get sucked in. Embrace the fictional worlds that others have created. Work out how to write other people’s characters and receive instant feedback. It may just be the inspiration you need to get you started on your bigger projects.

As for me? I’m enjoying it far too much to let go of my little tales. I’m in for the long haul.

The characters I wanted to be…

Posted in Books, Favourites, Opinion, Personal
on April 22, 2017
Characters I wanted to be

I’m playing around with the imagery I use for blog titles at the moment – expect to see a few different things until I settle on my look!

It’s hardly surprising that so many of us bookworms have a secret hankering to be one – or more – of the characters in the books we read. Escapism is a large reason for most of us reading after all. And for those of us with an over-active imagination (ahem) it’s all too easy to insert ourselves neatly into the story and rewrite chunks of the novel to suit our purposes (more on that later).

I remember doing this frequently throughout my childhood, and teens… and okay yes, still even now. (Hey, why be a grown up with a job and bills to pay when you can instead be some lovelorn heroine somewhere?).  So, here are some of the characters I remember wishing I was. Including all the embarrassing ones. Please don’t judge.

Anne of Green Gables

Lord knows why. She was always getting into scrapes, but I suppose she was good hearted and it mostly turned out alright for her. Apart from when she dyed her hair green. It was probably because I share in her tendency for bossiness.

Jo March AND Beth March

Okay, this probably needs some explanation. Really I wanted to be Beth, except she was a little bit boring and then there’s the whole bit where she dies. I liked the idea of everyone thinking I was good and nice and on some elevated level of moral high ground. BUT, what I really liked was Jo’s sense of adventure and trouble. I could definitely see myself having lots of fun with Laurie and being a writer like her… And in my version, there’s none of that German professor lark. She marries Laurie like she was meant to (Laurie may well have been my first crush – is that embarrassing?), lives in the lap of luxury over the road, and writes till her heart is content, whilst listening to Bethy play the piano. Seee? Much better than the original.

Lyra Belacqua

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m quite the fan of His Dark Materials. I love Lyra’s world of armoured bears, of witches, daemons, gyptians… I so wanted to be her, to have a best friend in Pan and to have the affection of Will Parry. Lyra is so cool. She’s fearless, adventurous and clever with a firm sense of right and wrong. Plus she’s really good at telling lies and I’ve always been rubbish at that. She garners respect from characters she encounters – characters who, we are made to understand, do not give their respect easily. She’s got an alethiometer which tells her anything she asks, she travels throughout different worlds, and she can do anything that she puts her mind to. Which is exactly why I used to wish and imagine myself as her all the time. Needless to say, I rewrote the ending of this one in my mind too – my version was much neater, much less literary but much more heart-warming (for those that have read the books, all I’ll say is all the worlds stay open in my head).

Bella Swan

Yeah, let’s move on sharpish from this one. I’m sure there was a reason why, as a 17 year old at an all girls’ school, I found the idea of having a sparkly vampire boyfriend attractive, but I can’t for the life of me remember why.

Darrell Rivers

Pre-aforementioned all-girls’ school. I think I was mostly attracted by the idea of midnight feasts and playing tricks. Needless to say I felt very short-changed when I arrived at mine.

Mildred Hubble 

Before Harry Potter came out, Mildred was my absolute hero. For a number of reasons – mostly, because she was the worst witch, and thus something I could identify with. She was also always scruffy looking – again I could definitely sympathise with. And she had a best friend called Maud, which seemed to me to be the most fantastically antiquated name ever (and therefore fantastic). I think I was just the teenie tiniest bit obsessed with magic too. Although curiously, I never fancied being Hermione. Funny that, eh?

Alice in Wonderland

Pretty inevitable really given my name and the fact that I live in the town where Lewis Carroll lived (probably only for five minutes, but why let that get in the way of a good tourist trap). Her adventures in Wonderland and through the looking glass were exciting, bizarre, intriguing and – well – filled with wonder. Aside from Carroll’s way with words (particularly poetry), I liked the idea that you could go exploring, talk to animals, grow big and small and escape the murderous queen of hearts.

So of these all, I think Lyra was the character I most desperately wanted to be, but Bella Swan occupied too much of my imagination too. (Cringe. Sorry. I know I’ve disappointed you all).  There were lots of other worlds that I wanted to be in, but these didn’t have characters I particularly wanted to be – such as Harry Potter, The Discworld, some of Marcus Sedgwick’s novels – perhaps that’s for another blog though.

Did you have any characters you wanted to be?

A Girl In London: An American In Paris

Posted in Five Star, Theatre
on March 30, 2017
souvenir programme

I was in London at the weekend – I was actually staying in Westminster. It felt a little odd going to Westminster for frivolous reasons given the tragedy that unfolded last week, but I really was heartened by what I saw.

I’m not going to turn this into a political blog – don’t worry about that. I just want to express my overwhelming feeling of pride in my fellow countrymen.

On Saturday there was a protest about Brexit (or Brexshit as perhaps it would be better to refer to it as). Parliament Square was heaving. People, they were out there in their hoards to use their democratic right to protest and freedom of speech. Recently I have found myself frequently being the ‘outsider’ point of view – so it was reassuring to feel that there are others who share my opinion, and are still prepared to fight for it. The best bit? Everything was peaceful, well formulated and respectful to those that had lost their lives only a few days before.

On Sunday things were very much back to normal around Westminster and Parliament. The bridge was heaving with tourists, as people snapped photos of the area and generally went along their business. Why am I mentioning this? We are not afraid. We haven’t stopped visiting places out of fear. am very proud of how we, as a United Kingdom, have united together over this.

You’re probably wondering when I am going to get to the point. It’s now.

The reason I was in London in the first place is because my boyfriend extraordinaire, got me tickets to see An American In Paris. The film version of the musical – starring none other than Gene Kelly – is one of my favourites.* I deliberately didn’t re-watch it before seeing the stage musical for fear that I might spend the whole time comparing it in my head. Now, I know it was silly to even think that as they are very different.

 

The stage version of An American In Paris contextualises the story in a way which the 1951 film doesn’t. This is understandable – in 1951, people did not go to the cinema to be reminded of the war which they had just lived though. As one of the characters in the musical remarks – if you can make people happy through your art, that’s what you should do. The film exists in this almost timeless era, where only the clothing and set design gives you an insight into the period in which it is set. Conversely, the stage version starts with the Nazi swastika being replaced with the French tricolour, and a dance sequence where you can see the French reclaiming their country. Throughout the stage version too, is the underlying feeling that this is a country which is repairing – there is a little bit of suspicion about those families who seem to have profited from the war, and nobody quite knows how – there is a sense of obligation to the American soldiers which you don’t quite get from the film.

Seeing a stage version of a film is a very different experience. Everybody knows how impressive Gene Kelly’s ballet sequence is – it’s what the film is famous for after all – but seeing (very different) ballet sequences on stage is something else. As someone who has two left feet, I was amazed by these sections of the musical. They were so beautifully choreographed, and so well complimented by the staging.

It’s hard to pick out the best moments of the musical, it was stand out from start to finish, with high energy and high impact throughout. (Even my boyfriend who has never seen a musical before, and expected to have fallen asleep before the interval said ‘I finally understand why you love musicals so much’.) Gershwin’s music, of course, is so opulent, exciting and wonderful. The score really comes alive when performed with such passion. My favourite moment of the show was ‘I Got Rhythm’. It won’t spoil anything to say that this was an ensemble moment done with aplomb.

I realise I have a tendency to gush a lot on this blog. I think it’s probably because I’ve decided life is too short to waste on things I don’t enjoy (I mean, I used to finish every book I ever started, and now I have much more patience). I’m trying my hardest not to gush here, but it’s so difficult because it was such a wonderful production. If I was being extra picky I suppose I might mention the French accent which sounded a little more German – but that is really very minor. All in all it’s an extravaganza.

This is the sort of musical that I adore. Perhaps controversially I have no interest in seeing things like Aladdin, the Lion King, Wicked – musicals of that ilk. Instead I prefer these golden oldies. They’re old fashioned, they’re understated (the staging and set for An American In Paris was stunning but it’s not the pyrotechnics you might get at one of the musicals I’ve just mentioned), they’ve got some great – and enduring – sing-a-long songs, and some iconic dance numbers. I also like the cheeky humour you tend to get in these musicals – Cole Porter’s would be another example of this.

If you’re expecting to see a remake of the film than this is not that. If you’re excited by a re-imagining of the story, then go. Go in your droves and enjoy. Because it would be impossible not to. A

Once again – it’s five stars from me.