By Ian McEwan
Admittedly, upon reading reviews of McEwan’s latest, the premise sounded intriguing: a fetus bears witness to the planning, execution, and aftermath of a murder. And not just any murder, but that of his own father by his soon-to-be mother and nurturer and her brother-in-law lover. Shades of Gertrude and Claudius, here, in the more prosaic raiment of untrue Trudy and cloddy Claude. Then there’s the narrating fetus; what an erudite treasure it is. Which is to say, perhaps the short novel skates on the boundaries of pretense and self-indulgence where even the title presents itself as irony in disguise.
The father John, the victim, writes ill-received poetry and runs a small press that publishes new poets who upon gaining notoriety desert him for larger houses. Trudy once lit up his life and if the fetus is to be believed she and John shared a romantic life, until the romance faded and his dull but financially successful brother replaced him in her affections. He, though, never lost his love and desire for her, to her utter frustration. Thus, she and Claude see no other recourse but to off him. They, as did their literary counterparts, choose poison.
All the while, the narrator conjures images of the pair while launching into flights of commentary, often to distraction, about the state of humankind and the condition of the planet. Its vocabulary and storehouse of knowledge, gained as a secondary recipient of podcasts listened to by Trudy, would challenge that of a professor.
It discerns things, particularly as related to the plotting and execution of the murder, that elude Trudy and Claude. Among its greatest concern is what will happen to him if they succeed and if they fail; life in a tenement high rise or as a jailhouse baby seem to be his choices. It conspires to prevent the murder by killing itself but when the will fails devises a way to thwart their escape plans in a dramatic eleventh-hour fashion. To be or not to be, don’t you know.
While certainly inventive, the exercise disappoints as a novel, especially in light of some of McEwan’s finer efforts, among them Atonement, Solar, and Sweet Tooth. Hopefully, with this need to show-off out of his system, McEwan will give us another of these.
For those who would enjoy another rendering of Hamlet, but not so much for those seeking a tale of murder. w/c