Book review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

The opening to Ian McEwan’s latest novella may go down as the best first line of 2016. Intriguingly, the author claims he thought up the line first and thought up the ensuing story afterwards. The story may essentially be summarised as a murder mystery told from the perspective of an unborn infant nestling within its mother womb. The mystery – without wishing to give too much away – has a strong Shakespearian element.

The fetus is a very clever fetus, having picked up more in the womb than many people pick up in their entire lives. The book is clever too, very clever. Not too clever either, although as it’s more of an experiment in narrative than a full blown novel is unlikely to gain the following that McEwan’s other books such as Atonement and Saturday have. But the experiment is undoubtedly a success.

Womb Raider? Inside Out? A Fetal Inversion? Inside Out? A Womb Of One’s Own? McEwan went for Nutshell as a title.

He’s probably right.

General Election memories 7: 2005

Blair 2005 mainPortsmouth, Hampshire, May 2005

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

This was the Tories’ brilliant slogan for the 2005 election. As it turned out, we weren’t thinking what they were thinking, unless they too were thinking, why have we picked Michael Howard as our leader?

Indeed, half the time we didn’t know what the Tories were thinking. Why had they replaced the unelectable William Hague with the even more unelectable Iain Duncan Smith in 2001? Surely the worst opposition leader of all time, they chose him over the comparatively brilliant Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo. In another eccentric decision, Michael Howard was chosen – unopposed – as Tory leader in 2003. Howard had been an unmitigated disaster as Home Secretary under Major and had actually come last in the Tory leadership contest in 1997 even behind the likes of Peter Lilley and John Redwood.

Prescott 2005

The Tories managed to be wrong on the key issue of the day too: the Iraq War. They were even keener to go in than Blair was. Like many people I was opposed because a) Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th b) the Bush administration seemed to have sinister reasons of their own for going in and c) they seemed to have little plan for what to do afterwards.

I even took part in the London February 15th 2003 anti-war march or at least the first half of it, abandoning it along with one of my friends to go to Pizza Hut (this isn’t mentioned in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday). I felt guilty over this at the time but I’m reasonably now satisfied now that the war would still have gone ahead had we completed the march.

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I did a few Labour-y things during my 2001-04 stint in Peterborough. I met the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, went to see Tony Benn doing a talk (then just retired as an MP) and was interviewed for a position to run the campaign of Peterborough MP Helen Clark (she would lose to Tory Stewart Jackson in 2005, the exact opposite of the 2001 result).

Despite all this, I seriously considered voting Liberal Democrat. Only the facts that Helen Clark had voted against the war and the fact that my voting Lib Dem could help the pro-war Jackson win swayed me.

Blair 2005

At any rate, I was not in Peterborough but in Portsmouth in 2005, at the very end of a six month Magazine Journalism course at Highbury College. I’d been reviewing films and DVDs for Peterborough-based free magazine ESP and had had more work since doing the course contributing to SFX magazine, the Charles and Camilla Royal Wedding edition of Radio Times, several local mags and (bizarrely for me) a sports journal. I was 28 years old and finally seemed to have worked out what I wanted to do.

The day after the election was actually the day of my Public Affairs exam on politics and government. It was a bizarre dilemma. Were my interests best served by more revision and an early night or by watching the election results? In the end, I did both. The only campaign activity I witnessed was a local debate between the local candidates. The UKIP man had been by far the most entertaining. Portsmouth’s outgoing Labour MP Syd Rapston was a slow-witted man best known for being duped by Chris Morris’s satire Brass Eye into publicly condemning the “made-up drug” Cake.

Some seemed surprised Labour’s national majority dropped by about 100, but, in truth, this was still a good result. I passed my course and returned briefly to Peterborough. I had interviews at Local Government and Inside Soap magazine and did some holiday cover at Radio Times. In June 2005, I was offered a job at DVD Monthly in Exeter, Devon. I had had girlfriends but was single then and thus unencumbered I went down south. I did not know for sure even where I was going to live on the day of my departure.

Ten years on, I have lived in Exeter ever since (2017 update: this is still true).

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Book review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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The Seventies were a very long time ago. It was a time of Cold War, industrial unrest, power cuts, states of emergency and economic decline. The Right were alarmed at the possibility of a coup from the Marxist Left, perhaps led by Anthony Wedgewood Benn. The Left were, in turn (perhaps with more reason) worried about the prospect of a military takeover by the Right, perhaps with Lord Louis Mountbatten being appointed as its symbolic head.

None of this news. The Seventies have been well covered in recent years, in non-fiction (such as Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent State of Emergency) and in fiction (Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club is just one example).

The era, specifically the Heath years (1970-74), do, however, provide an excellent backdrop for Ian McEwan’s latest spy novel Sweet Tooth.

Perhaps “spy novel” is a misleading term (although it definitely is one) as this has a more literary flavour than most books in the genre. The young pretty heroine Serena Frome (perhaps Hayley Atwell could play her if there’s ever a TV or film version?) is groomed for MI5 after leaving Cambridge once an affair with one of her lecturers turns sour. But Serena’s suitability for espionage is as based as much on her reading habits as any other talents she might have. For Serena is soon used as a tool to bring an emerging star of the literary world “on side” and like George Orwell before, become ensconced in the MI5 Cold War camp.

Ian McEwan is a rarity in British fiction in that he manages to attract both popular appeal with literary acclaim. Here, he does so again, exploring a world of intrigue as well as a vanished literary scene (Anthony Powell, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis) in reality poised to give way to a new generation of writing talent, namely Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd and Ian McEwan himself.