"So here I am, upside down in a woman" (p1) is the starting line of this novel, narrated by the soon-to-be-born child of Trudy and John. But Trudy has kicked John out of the marital home (his family's house), an incredibly untidy and in urgent need of repair central London house. She is having an affair with John's brother Claude. And Claude and Trudy are planning to murder John to get possession of the house (which is worth millions in the current market).
It is, of course, the back story to Hamlet: Trudy is Gertrude, Claude (a brilliant character whose speech is fabulously banal, just saying, but) is Claudius and John is the Old King. Which is a clever way in which the unborn Hamlet can be privy to the plot without requiring a ghostly visitation.
This is a stunningly well written book. It must have been difficult but often fun to try to construct a narrator who can hear and can enjoy the various vintages of wine his mother drinks and can feel being prodded by Claude's penis when Claude and Trudy have sex but cannot see. The narrator is incredibly precocious (understanding rather more of what he hears on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service than I do) but once you have swallowed your disbelief thus far it is time to sit back and enjoy. The prose is sometimes like a poem (John was a poet), dense with (often Shakespearean but always unacknowledged) references and covering a huge range of issues from poetic metre (trochaic tetrameters and the debate as to whether to use catalepsis or not) to refugees flooding Europe (with beautiful irony this is just as Trudy and Claude are preparing to travel in the opposite direction), from the 'contact sport' of international aggression to the separation of boredom from pleasure. The embryonic stream of consciousness is wonderfully erudite but this privileged observation of the world can never get too intense because it is always juxtaposed against the very mundane reality of the crime that is being planned. Murder most foul. And the inherited wordiness of the narrator is contrasted brilliantly and comically with Claude who can only speak in cliches and mundanities.
The plot is good too.
Some tastes of the fabulous prose
"My many million young neurons, busy as silkworms, spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea." (p 2)
"A joyous Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea, reeling off the walls of my castle, the bouncy castle that is my home." [Nice link to Elsinore. McEwan obviously loves his wine! He refers to it frequently in the words of a connoisseur.]
"In my mother's usage, space, her need for it, is a misshapen metaphor, if not a synonym. For being selfish, devious, cruel." (p 15)
"His nakedness is as startling as an accountant's suit." (p 22)
"To be this insipid is hardly plausible." (p 24)
"A philosophy of 'personal growth' - a phrase as paradoxical as 'easy listening'" (p 34)
"Why else did cannibals avoid eating morons?" (p 116)
"It's not the theme parks of Paradiso and Inferno that I dread most - the heavenly, rides, the hellish crowds - and I could live with the insult of heavenly oblivion. ... What I fear is missing out." (pp 128 - 129)
"Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves, Confucius said. Revenge unstitches a civilization." (p 135)
"The world doesn't come to him through a haze of the subjective; it comes refracted by stupidity and greed, bent as through glass or water, but etched on a screen before the inner eye, a lie as sharp and bright as truth. Claude doesn't know he's stupid. If you're stupid, how can you tell?" (pp 147 - 148)
"'You'll have to be the midwife.'
'Not my baby'
'It's never the midwife's baby.'" (p 195)
McEwan writes beautiful prose. Other examples reviewed in this blog as The Child in Time and Solar. I have also enjoyed his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites, and his novels Amsterdam, the rather over-hyped Atonement (but it did have the most visceral description of a long walk on blistering feet) the brilliant Saturday and the (again much-hyped) On Chesil Beach. The book is one of his best, a tour de force by an outstanding author. Time for the big prizes, I think.
January 2017; 198 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57