I caught myself describing this book to someone a few days ago as, “a book written from the perspective of an unborn baby. Surprisingly, it works.” I need to stop being so surprised when Ian McEwan writes crazy things and makes them work.
The perspective of this book limits a lot of things, including anything the baby can’t directly observe since he can’t visualize and sometimes can’t hear from his space. Despite these limitations, the book is engrossing. The events in this book are loosely inspired by Hamlet, intentionally, I believe, since the opening quote from the book is from that play. The baby’s mother has separated from his father, although she remains in their home with her brother-in-law with whom she is sleeping.
This book retains all of the magnificent, clean prose from McEwan’s previous work and raises it one more by choosing a protagonist that has not yet been born. A brilliant wordsmith, at home in a the space of a poet who describes ordinary things in a new and extraordinary way, McEwan places these same observations in the mouth of an unborn baby.
There were some moments in which I raised my eyebrows, the level of reasoning and speech is quite elevated for an unborn baby. There are sections where the baby describes things like colors, although he’s never seen them, and uses metaphors in ways that hover just beyond believable for his stage of life. His biological father is a poet and professor and his mother listens to intelligent talk radio as she dozes throughout her pregnancy. The unnamed fetus has all the makings of what will be a brilliant human being. Perhaps for that reason, I was able to suspend disbelief despite the elevated speech and heavy subject matter.
For most of the book, the baby is a passive observer who frets over the wellbeing of the mother he cannot help but love, despite her imperfections and limitations. He then frets over his own well-being, what will become of him once he is born and how will he fit into his mother’s new life?
Like my previous experiences with McEwan, the prose at times startled me by it’s unexpected truthfulness about ordinary life and transformed my view of the world we live in that is anything but ordinary. I approach all of McEwan’s work with high expectations and I was not disappointed.