published in the Raleigh News and Observer July, 28, 2017
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so aware of a narrator’s importance than when listening to Rory Kinnear’s reading of Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” (book from Doubleday, audio from Recorded Books). It is often a narrator’s job to transport you to believability, but Kinnear must convince us of the reality of the viewpoint character – a fetus. That alone requires a serious suspension of disbelief, but there’s more. This is not just any unborn child. He is the sole observer of his mother Trudy’s infidelity with his Uncle Claude. And what’s more, they are not just up to illicit love, they’re planning the poisoning of his father.
This babe-to-be has plenty to brood about in utero. And brood he does in a fashion that questions life itself, just as one famous Dane did in a previous work of literature. “I could be bounded in a nutshell,” Hamlet said, “and count myself a king of infinite space.” While Hamlet was stressing his wish to be a creature solely of thoughts and imaginings, the protagonist of McEwan’s tale is more literally bound in his nutshell-like womb. His actions suspended by circumstance, he is physically constrained to live in the world of thoughts and fancy.
Actor Rory Kinnear is no stranger to Shakespeare’s plays. He has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, played both Laertes and Hamlet with the National Theater and taken on roles in “Othello,” “Measure for Measure” and “Richard II.” Kinnear brings his elegant voice, emotional subtlety, irony and nuance to McEwan’s “Nutshell.”
Kinnear’s talents pair brilliantly with the award-winning author’s gifts enabling us to escape the known world and enter the perspective of the hero whose soliloquy begins, “So here I am, upside down in a woman, arms patiently crossed, waiting.” And as the unborn child waits, he has time to contemplate and consider. Despite his confinement, he has learned much about the world from his mother’s “podcast lectures and self-improving audio books.” He has no choice, really, for he is “fully inverted, not an of inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, … my ear is pressed day and night against the bloody walls.” At term, his musings float in a way reminiscent of his earlier amniotic acrobatics – their range unbound. He condemns the “puerile” blasts of the BBC World Service, recounts the bliss that comes from a “blushful pinot noir,” relates concise and pointed pictures of the current horrors of each of the world’s continents. He voices disgust that “his father’s rival’s penis is inches from my nose” and wonders how he might foil the plot his mother and uncle are hatching.
Author and narrator lead us through illusions to Dickens, Dante and Dunne as they bridge mockery, earnestness, humor and sarcasm. Rory Kinnear’s wry reading matches the author’s wit at every turn.