The idea for the extremely unusual narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel “Nutshell” first came to him while he was chatting with his pregnant daughter-in-law. “We were talking about the baby, and I was very much aware of the baby as a presence in the room,” he recalls. He jotted down a few notes, and soon afterward, daydreaming in a long meeting, the first sentence of the novel popped into his head: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.”Near the end of the interview, the interviewer asks the question which came first to my mind, and McEwan brushes it off rather derisively with a non-answer:
What unfolds is a short murder mystery in a grand, decrepit Georgian home in London, featuring a pregnant woman, her estranged husband and his brother—now the woman’s lover—told by the married couple’s unborn child. The mother-father-uncle love triangle, and the narrator’s paralysis and helplessness, evoke another famous work of British literature that served as an inspiration for Mr. McEwan.
Given the charged debate over abortion, a preternaturally sentient unborn child could strike some readers as a pro-life argument. Is that your intention?
I only get this question from America. I’m not going to enter into the charged debate about this. I’m from a generation that largely took for granted a woman’s right to make a decision on this, provided that this is done early enough.
But in the whole of writing this book, the issue of pro-choice or pro-life didn’t even cross my mind. I don’t think it crossed the mind of any European who came near the book either.
There are, of course, various ways one could answer this question. They wouldn't necessarily need to be answers in line with Christian beliefs about the dignity of life. He could have said, "Well, look. One can write a novel based upon any conceit. Richard Adams wrote a novel from the viewpoint of rabbits, and for them exterminating their warren with poison gas had something of the magnitude of a war crime. But that's merely a function of imagining a point of view different from those that actually exist. To a rabbit, this might be a crime against humanity, but to us it's simply humane pest control. If a child in the womb had the sentience of the narrator in my book, perhaps it would be a crime to kill her, but of course we know that's only make believe."
A somewhat loathsome view, perhaps, but it would have a coherence to it. What's odd to me is the way in which McEwan refuses to even engage with the question which his novel should naturally bring up. Oh, it's something only an American would think of. Well, perhaps, but if so isn't that perhaps a problem?
One of the great things about literature is that it can provide the reader a window into the plight of someone very different. That could mean something as distant and time an place as putting yourself into the place of a peasant in Ancient China, or something as nearby as a boy reading a book written from the point of view of a girl his own age. In this sense, literature can be very humanistic, in that his humanizes people different from ourselves. Yet here we have an author saying of the main character of his book that it's not even a question of interest (except to those Americans) whether people like his main character are persons with human rights and all that goes with them. To not even have an interest in the question seem to show a serious lack of moral imagination.