Speaking from the womb of his 28-year-old mother, this slim entertainment’s precocious narrator tells of sex and booze and something rotten in London.
The story covers a few days as pregnant Trudy and her lover, Claude, bumble through a plan to use a poisoned smoothie to kill John, who is her estranged husband, Claude’s brother, and the fetus’s father. The motives are, as always, love and money: the Trudy-Claude affair is fueled by the prospect of selling John’s valuable London town house. The lovers paint John as a failed and boring poet, while a protégé’s post-mortem testimony indicates otherwise. Blame the little guy inside, an inevitably unreliable narrator at nine months’ gestation. Of course, the contrivance of a fetus as docent is a tricky one even with a writer as resourceful as McEwan (The Children Act, 2014, etc.). It cries out for awkward, pace-killing explanations: how can the unborn know Ex, Why, and Zed? McEwan works to suspend disbelief by giving his narrator versions of the five senses and an intellect that ranges far beyond his human cell thanks to his mother’s affection for talk radio, “podcast lectures and self-improving audio books.” He also has a persuasive, down-to-earth voice, which somehow makes more palatable his many insights and observations that add flesh to a meager story. A bit more flesh (perhaps a pound) comes with McEwan’s suggestion of a 21st-century prequel to Hamlet, quickly signaled in the names of the chief characters, (Ger)Trudy and Claude(ius), their kinships and murder plot, and many another allusion pointing to Elsinore of yore. Catching those allusions can be a fun sort of parlor game, but what they add up to, if anything, is unclear.
Clever, likable, and yet unsatisfying, this tale too often bears out the narrator’s early claim: “I take in everything, even the trivia—of which there is much.”