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Foetus in womb narrates Hamlet

In Ian McEwan's retelling of the Bard's classic revenge tragedy, an unborn baby watches helplessly as his mother plots with her lover to kill her husband

FICTION

NUTSHELL

By Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape/ Paperback/ 199 pages/ $32/ Books Kinokuniya/4.5/5stars

There have been countless postmodern re-tellings of Hamlet, Shakespeare's classic revenge tragedy, from Tom Stoppard's absurdist play Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead to the Disney animated film The Lion King.

But there has never been any quite like Ian McEwan's Nutshell, narrated by a foetus lying upside down in his mother's womb.

In this state of suspension, he witnesses the affair his mother is having with his uncle and the plot they hatch to murder his father.

This zany premise - the Bard crossed with 1989 romcom Look Who's Talking, in which Bruce Willis voices a baby's thoughts - could well have gone off the rails in the hands of a less able novelist.

But it is handled with darkly funny aplomb by McEwan, a six- time Man Booker nominee who won the prize in 1998 for his novel, Amsterdam.

He takes Hamlet's famous quote - "Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space - were it not that I have bad dreams" - and runs with it as a literal premise.

Confined to the womb of his beautiful, scheming mother Trudy, the narrator must observe helplessly as she plots with her insipid lover Claude to off her husband and his brother, the hapless poet-publisher John Cairncross.

The heavily pregnant Trudy inhabits a filthy London townhouse, her husband's childhood home from which she has evicted him.

Her plan is to poison him, so that she can carry on her affair with his property developer brother and sell the crumbling ancestral heap for millions in profit.

All this is recounted by her unborn child, whose near-omniscient eloquence admittedly requires some suspension of disbelief.

Ian McEwan takes Hamlet's famous quote - "Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space - were it not that I have bad dreams" - and runs with it as a literal premise.

He soliloquises in the womb at length on all manner of subjects - from current affairs he hears on the radio, to the flavour of a Sauvignon Blanc distilled via placenta.

Taking full advantage of his narrator's unusual position, McEwan depicts with relish not one but multiple sexual encounters between Claude and Trudy from the crudest vantage point possible.

McEwan, who was longlisted for the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2007 for On Chesil Beach, seems to be gunning for a win this year with a knowing wink.

"Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose," laments the foetus.

During one particularly vigorous bedroom bout, he even tries to strangle himself with his umbilical cord, in a comically literal spin on the phrase "mortal coil".

Such wordplay is among the countless allusions to the original play, with which McEwan lovingly peppers his tale. One does not need to know Shakespeare to understand Nutshell, but it does make it more fun to read. One instance is when the malapropic Claude mangles a Macbeth quote - "Stick your courage to the screwing place" - unintentionally foreshadowing how his lust will be his undoing.

But by and large, the character of Claude is Nutshell at its weakest, as readers see him entirely through the filter of the narrator's hatred.

Unlike Shakespeare's Claudius, whose lone monologue adds emotional dimensions beyond his nephew's embittered perspective, the cliche-riddled Claude remains a caricature of dull villainy.

Elsewhere, attempts to encompass the wider world, through lengthy diatribes by the foetus on capitalism, climate change and the refugee crisis, also fail to cohere.

The narrative is at its sharpest when it tightens on the twists of the murder plot and the machinations of its characters.

Space in this Nutshell proves finite after all, but its kernel is tasty enough.

If you like this, read: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 2008, $20.79, Books Kinokuniya and other major bookstores). In a Dorset seaside hotel in 1962, a young English newlywed couple struggle with their anxieties about their wedding night.


FICTION

THE LOST GIRLS

By Heather Young

William Morrow/Hardcover/352 pages/$42.02/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

Six-year-old Emily Evans vanishes from the family's vacation home in 1935, never to be found again, even though her mother and two older sisters keep a vigil at the Minnesota lake house for the rest of their lives.

Middle child Lucy is the only one left when she begins an account of that summer, handwritten in notebooks she wills to her grandniece Justine.

The Lost Girls is told in alternating chapters, with Lucy's story in first person and Justine's in third, the former more present and compelling.

Emily is the one who disappears, but she features only occasionally, making Heather Young's debut novel as much about the girl who disappeared as the girls who were left behind.

Just as haunting as the book's central mystery is the growing pains of girls lost not in the woods, but in the space between innocence and adolescence, "the last days before childhood gives way to adulthood".

Lucy experiences this at 11, chasing and stumbling after her elder sister Lilith, two years older but already a world away.

Decades later, Justine's two children Melanie and Angela struggle too, when the single mother uproots her family from San Diego, leaving behind a loving but needy live-in boyfriend for a fresh start at the lake house she inherits from Lucy.

Melanie, sullen and unreachable, is practically a teenager at 11.

And Justine's vagabond mother, shaking the dust off her feet and leaving men behind in every city across the United States, brings her trademark dramatic flair when she bursts into their lives, upending the Minnesotan quiet.

Young characterises each member of her extensive cast, fleshing out all of them, but the stories of her two protagonists are the richest.

As their stories creep along, Young makes their discomfort palpable. This turns out to be one of the book's greatest triumphs - the awkward, painful shadows of human experience readers are not proud to recall.

"Go away," Lucy tells Emily viciously, feeling like "an unwanted, tagalong little sister" and wanting to do the same to another, relishing the "slippery, cold satisfaction I always felt when I hurt her".

As the two stories progress, they inch closer to each other, clues from the past mingling with facts of the present.

When the climax unveils the mystery, there will be enough shock for a satisfying denouement and enough hints to realise, in hindsight, what was disguised just well enough from the start.

If you like this, read: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (Pamela Dorman Books, 2016, $26.54, Books Kinokuniya), a mystery about a young couple, their apparently friendly neighbours and the secrets between husbands and wives.

Clara Lock


FICTION

DARKTOWN

By Thomas Mullen

Little, Brown Book Group/Paperback/384 pages/$32.95/ Books Kinokuniya

Atlanta in 1948 was a deeply divided community.

Wealthy, white Americans kept to their parts of the city on one side of a railroad crossing. If they visited the African-American area of Darktown, it was for the vices that some streets had to offer: gambling dens and brothels.

And Darktown was where the city's first eight "coloured" police officers patrolled - without squad cars, unable to arrest white suspects and operating from a dingy basement.

This well-characterised novel, which centres on a pair of black policemen, begins as a work of crime fiction.

Two officers on night patrol, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, hear a crash. They turn to see a white Buick on a kerb.

It had hit a light pole, leaving it swaying, and its driver, who is white, reeks of alcohol. His female passenger, a dark-skinned woman with a bruise on the side of her lip, is later found dead.

Inevitably, racism rears its head. When the pair stop the car, its driver refuses to defer.

He tells Boggs: "You're wasting my time, boy."

At this point, the book helpfully reminds the reader that "normally, you weren't supposed to look white folks in the eye" and "coloured officers only patrolled the coloured parts of town".

This stands in stark contrast with two white officers' clout as they go about the African-American neighbourhood: Young officer Denny Rakestraw watches as his partner, veteran cop Lionel Dunlow, beat up a black man walking alone at night in an alley.

Such elements not only place Darktown among works of historical fiction, but also bring to mind present-day Atlanta.

Last month, one of its former policemen was charged for shooting an unarmed black man with "no provocation".

But rather than simply making a statement on race, these features invite readers to imagine contradictions that the new officers face as they grapple with upholding their authority despite being considered second-class citizens and attempt to win their own community's trust.

Ultimately, what makes Darktown a satisfying read is its characterisation.

On one hand are the different backgrounds of reverend's son Boggs and his partner Smith, who gave up womanising and drinking for the job. On the other, white rookie officer Rakestraw struggles with his disgust at Dunlow's brutality as he works with his new counterparts in unravelling the mystery of the dead young woman.

If you like this, read: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (HarperCollins Publishers/2014/ $21.40/Books Kinokuniya), about a blind French girl and German boy who meet in occupied France as they try to survive World War II.

Seow Bei Yi


FICTION

LAMENT FOR THE FALLEN

By Gavin Chait

Doubleday/Paperback/384pages/$33.17/ Books Kinokuniya/3/5 stars

Strangers are a familiar sight in the remote West African village of Ewuru. Starving refugees from the North find sanctuary there as they flee homelands ravaged by war and natural disaster, and warlords and their armies pass by on their way to battle.

But when a starship crashes into the nearby jungle one night, the villagers welcome their strangest stranger yet: Samara, a metal- skinned man with superhuman abilities, on the run from an orbiting space prison known as Tartarus.

As they nurse him back to health, sharing with him their lives and their struggles, Samara's presence soon draws the attention of a greedy warlord and brings violence to the village's doorstep.

In Lament For The Fallen, which takes place some time in the future, Gavin Chait taps on the riches of science-fiction - conjuring cities in the sky and sentient technology - and sets up a backdrop of warring alien worlds.

But Ewuru remains the novel's epicentre. It is, after all, a tale of humanity's will to survive, as the villagers strive to make their home a self-sustainable oasis in a war- torn land. It is also a story of the simplest of life's pleasures: family, stories, memories and home.

Chait manages to capture the tender blossoming of relationships - between villagers and aliens, between born-and-bred villagers and refugees - with heart, weaving these warm moments with the jarring brutalities of war.

But Lament's intriguing premise is more often than not weighed down by tedious exposition.

Chait does not trust readers to wander alone through the world he has created, preferring to hold them tight by the hand and lead them, unending paragraph after unending paragraph, through its every idiosyncrasy and techni- cality.

The heavy-handed world-build- ing makes the novel an occasional slog, but it is freshened up with sparkling moments of human drama and by characters driven by courage, fear and, above all, love.

If you like this, read: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), in which aliens land in the beach city of Lagos in Nigeria, and an unlikely trio made up of a marine biologist, a rapper and a soldier, must now find a way to save the world.

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh


FICTION

RAZOR GIRL

By Carl Hiaasen

Alfred A. Knopf/Paperback/333 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars

A case of mistaken identity sets off a series of unfortunate but hilarious events in Carl Hiaasen's Hollywood showbiz satire, which is chock-full of barmy characters and handbrake-screeching plot twists. It is quirky but can overwhelm with the multiple subplots.

Hollywood talent manager Lane Coolman is on his way to watch his client's comedy gig, when someone crashes into his car. The client, Buck Nance, is a redneck reality star.

An attractive woman, who has been purportedly shaving her bikini area, walks out half-naked. He takes off with her in hopes of scoring her, but she ends up kidnapping him.

She is con artist Merry Mansfield, aka Razor Girl, who makes a good living from entrapping rich men with her usual method.

Problem is, she's got the wrong guy. Her mark is actually dodgy land developer Martin Trebeaux, who steals sand to repair erosion on beaches. The mistake sets off a chain of other mysterious disappearances.

Nance himself disappears after inciting ire with his homophobic and racist rants during the gig.

Other personalities that appear include a New York City mafia boss with a fondness for Hawaiian prints and an ex-detective and public health inspector who is determined to crack the case to recover his reputation.

The author's deadpan sense of humour meshes well with the outrageous situations that he puts his characters in. For example, while being lectured by Mansfield, who calls out his client's bigotry, Coolman winds up thinking: "Would it be wrong to seduce your own kidnapper?"

When the novel is at its best, action and social commentary move along at breakneck speeds, with gags reflecting contemporary issues such as media culture, racial politics and terrorism.

Hiaasen illustrates how the gap between one's public and private identities has widened in a media- fuelled age - and how that artificial public identity could well take on a dangerous life of its own.

When Nance is stalked by a boorish, rabid fan, he acknowledges that the fan is "his creation, the ultimate white-trash nightmare".

But what slows down the bulk of the book is the amount of text dedicated to even the most tangential of characters.

Too many subplots are also spun off from the main narrative, which becomes wearisome and distracting.

Readers with the patience to sit through the multiple plots and the hyper-local references to Floridian culture will be rewarded with a smart, sassy tale that delivers its jokes pointedly, though the humour would be lost on others with less mental bandwidth to make sense of it all.

If you like this, read: Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard (HarperCollins, 1990, $24.24, Books Kinokuniya), a comedic thriller chronicling the misadventures of a Florida loan shark who ends up in Hollywood while pursuing a debtor.

Yuen Sin


FICTION

HEROES OF THE FRONTIER

By Dave Eggers

Penguin Books/Paperback/400 pages/$29.91/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars

In this new dark comedy by Dave Eggers, a 40-year-old former dentist named Josie begins a journey through Alaska with her two young children - ditching her old life and along with it the spineless father of her children.

The story is told through Josie's perspective, incorporating her encounters and musings on her road trip to the "frontiers" of both the Alaskan wilderness and her experiences.

At its best, Heroes Of The Frontier is a life-affirming read, although at times it can be too self-consciously clever for its own good.

While the book has no shortage of absurd moments, weighty American themes of gun violence, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and broken relationships rear their heads. Some of these happen against a backdrop of abandoned relics (an old mining town, a steel mill) of the post-war industrial boom. Readers might also spot uneasy parallels between Josie and her children's trespassing and America's long history of invasion and conquest.

Cabins in the wilderness, no longer bastions of Thoreauvian or Emersonian self-reliance, become places of cosy refuge stocked with their former occupants' board games and party food.

Even as Josie flees her old life, she remains a prisoner of capitalism, spending more than she should on expensive clothing and food.

As usual, Eggers' prose is highly readable and full of sharp, honest observations. His wry humour often made me chuckle. But Heroes, like some of his other works, can often seem too knowingly quirky. Because it is this time neither a memoir, where such indulgences might be forgiven, nor a fast-paced thriller (see his 2013 book The Circle), some parts can grow quite contrived.

Almost as if to drum in the fact that the book is partly composed of the orchestrations of Josie's active mind, one scene features her lying flat on her back, guiding a band of musicians as they attempt to play a tune in her head.

Also, I'm not sure how I feel about Paul, Josie's precocious son with "ice-priest eyes", who surpasses his parents in wisdom and seems the polar opposite of his destructive little sister.

Quite a bit of unfunny posturing does go on, for instance, when the topics of the water bill and urination are raised in the same sentence in a flaccid attempt at subtle comedy.

Some readers might also find Eggers' tendency to dole out moral metaphors a tad annoying.

In the final pages, an earnest Hollywood-esque sequence of events unfolds, with Josie and her children fleeing wildfires and dodging lightning bolts and avalanches.

It is fortuitous that Heroes' preoccupation with broken things means that - like Josie's imaginary "Disappointed" musical featuring a cast of real-life disappointments - any "failure" in part adds to the success of the novel as a whole. 

Eggers looms a bit too large in this book - you can almost catch him at work behind his characters. Yet it is this same self-consciousness that makes his work so human and eminently relatable.

Stitch marks and all, Heroes demonstrates that the most human of experiences are often also the most ingloriously absurd.

If you like this, read: A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius (Vintage Books, 2001, $28.60, Books Kinokuniya), Eggers' best-selling memoir about his life with his younger brother Toph.

Toh Wen Li


GRAPHIC NOVEL / NON-FICTION

THE ARAB OF THE FUTURE 2: A CHILDHOOD IN THE MIDDLE EAST, 1984-1985

By Riad Sattouf

Translated by Sam Taylor

Two Roads/Paperback/154 pages/$36.86/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

The Arab Of The Future 2 is a continuation of cartoonist Riad Sattouf's childhood memoir of his life in the Middle East. He used to work at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

In this second instalment in a planned series of five, his father has moved his French wife and their young sons back to his hometown, the Syrian village of Ter Maaleh.

Where the first award-winning volume recounts Sattouf's time as a four-year-old living in France then Libya, he is now six and enrolled in a Syrian school.

An observant child, he is hyper- aware of the chauvinism of his pompous Arab nationalist father, the growing distance between his parents and being an outsider in school. (Like his mother, he is blond.) He takes everything in as a child would, simply and unjudgmentally.

The art, too, has the same tone - clean strokes and no more than three colours in a frame. While the first volume was painted mostly in green, a nod to Libyan dictator Gaddafi's manifesto Green Book, most of the second is in red, to represent Syria's iron-rich earth.

Besides being a domestic drama, the book also paints a wider picture of pre-civil war Syria, which was then ruled by dictator Hafez Al- Assad.

It was a divided nation with simmering tensions between rich and poor, male and female, the religious and agnostic. Children can be cruel and Sattouf has a particularly hard time in school.

A blond child in a sea of black heads, he receives anti-Semitic threats even though he is not Jewish. It does not help that his teacher takes perverse delight in ridiculing poorer children and delivering painful slaps to those who fail to memorise the Syrian national anthem.

The rest of society is also deeply stratified. Once, when Sattouf leaves a dinner to play with the children of generals, he is ordered to stand back and watch, or be killed.

The book also captures the relationship between his parents as they drift apart because of cultural differences. His mother is socially isolated as she does not speak Arabic, while her husband ignores her views and constantly puts down the West despite having studied in France.

The simple but powerful visual storytelling reflects the experiences of many Syrians who have left behind the lives they knew. In the context of the ongoing refugee crisis, this dark but poignant memoir is a must-read.

If you like this, read: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, 2004, $25.61, major bookstores), a black- and-white comic strip memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

Rachel Au-Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'Foetus in womb narrates Hamlet'. Print Edition | Subscribe