While Ian McEwan says he wanted his latest book to be "something completely different" from the 16 books that came before, he is feeling "a sense of return" with the publication of Nutshell, in stores this week. The novel is an ingenious mystery in which the only witness to a crime is stuck in his mother's womb – an eight-month-old fetus, whose knowledge of the world comes from snippets of conversation, podcasts and his own budding sense of self. It is a playful, probing look at life before birth.
"In my early stories, written in the first half of the seventies, I had very improbable narrators who stood outside the world, looking in," says McEwan, 68. "I had, for example, a story narrated by an ape who's having a love affair with a woman – a novelist who's struggling with her second novel. And it was those kinds of dissociated narrators that I felt I was returning to."
Nutshell is a tremendously fun, deceptively perceptive offering from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of On Chesil Beach and Atonement, among other books. The Globe's Mark Medley spoke to McEwan last month.
What inspired this novel?
I was at a rather long, boring meeting and my thoughts wandered, as they tend to do. Suddenly, the first sentence of the novel ("So here I am, upside down in a woman") drifted into my mind, fully formed. I thought, "Who is speaking?" Over the next week or two, I began to think about a fetus who's highly articulate, and could speculate about the world he's about to join. It just became a fairly ridiculous but irresistible conceit. I kept saying to myself, "This is fun." At the same time, I'd think, "I'm never going to get away with it."
From a craft point of view, how do you create a narrator who has never seen the world? As he says, he only possesses "the illusion of a known world." It's like writing about a blind alien visiting Earth for the first time.
It's all smoke and mirrors. You have to buy the suspension of disbelief of your reader. I thought the best way to do it is to actually go straight in there and suggest that this fetus was already looking back on his youth – that he's rather an old fetus – and rather nostalgic about the times when he was small enough to float freely around in the womb.
When I first heard about the concept, I couldn't believe it hadn't been done before.
I guess if you look at the opening lines of Tristram Shandy, it suddenly occurs to me, he's talking about his conception. The closest I could get to it was Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, which has a three-year-old who remains 3 forever. Sometimes it's the most obvious ideas, and then you find out that no one has done them. For example, when I was doing the initial pages of On Chesil Beach, I thought surely someone has written about the first six or seven hours of a marriage, when you come away from all the celebration and confetti and suddenly you're alone together and you have to consummate the marriage and either you know how to do it or you don't. This is so obvious. But to my surprise, I've yet to find the story, or novella, or novel, that covers these hours in real time. And yet, many of us are married, and have gone through those hours. So we probably have hundreds of years ahead of us yet of discovering all kinds of things that are staring us in the face.
This is a novel about birth, but it's also a novel about death. These are life's two universal experiences. You're now 68 – is this something you think about more these days?
Absolutely. There's no escaping it. It presses in on all sides and comes in at trivial moments as well as important ones. How much of my granddaughter's life – she's 2 – will I see? How many summers have I got left? And you feel it in the body, and you feel it in the joints. And you notice with writers how much it affects the later work. And how the characters are carrying the weight of their creator's sense of shortening time. Sometimes you see it in the wish to escape it, and maybe that's why I've got a fetus – my youngest character yet – narrating the book.
Do you think you could have written Nutshell earlier in your career, or did you need to wait until you were older?
I think this is very much the kind of novel I might have written in my 20s, but I wouldn't have had the reflective range. But I think if I could go and whisper in the ear of my 24-year-old self, "Why not write a novel narrated by someone who's just about to be born?", I think that younger self would say, "Oh, great, thanks, maybe I will." As I said before, this is a kind of return.
The narrator is constantly being reminded of all that is wrong with the world. One of the questions this novel asks is whether someone would want to be born if they knew what awaited them. Would you?
Oh, absolutely. However grim the world is, it's the end of hope if we don't have children to come along and inherit this difficult world and do something about it. We're dead if we don't keep on. We used to have this discussion in the seventies and in the early eighties, especially – everyone's mind was on all-out nuclear war. No, we mustn't give up on the world, is my sense of things.
You mentioned your granddaughter. You must be anxious in terms of what her life will be like when she's your age.
Absolutely. It's a great line to cross in life, I think, becoming a parent, because, first of all, there's someone in the world far more important than you. And, secondly, you then want the world, and the human project, to succeed, possibly in ways that you never quite did before. You now have this investment. And that's why I feel we mustn't give up on it. There are far more good people in the world than bad people. The people causing havoc across Europe in the terrorist attacks represent such a minute fraction, even though they cause devastating misery. … People ask me a lot about pessimism and optimism in my work, and I always say that in your youth, when you're single and free and footloose, you can afford to be as pessimistic as you like. There's something delicious about it. But the moment that you start to have some wishes for the whole human project, you then start looking for those things that will get us through. They become much more important.
This interview has been condensed and edited.