This book was a total shitshow. Holy moly I’ve not read anything this bad in years. To be fair, I only have myself to blame, because if I’m perfectly honest, which is what this blog is for, I’m not a fan of McEwan’s. The biggest compliment I’ve ever heard him be given is that he’s “the master of chronology”. Given that the-order-things-are-put-together is not my main motivation for picking up a book and that I didn’t like much else about his work, I decided to quit at 5 books (all rated 1-2*). So why the hell did I pick up this book? A gimmicky retelling of Hamlet from the perspective of a foetus no less? Well quite simply because I had a free copy to hand and like a curious idiot, I decided to give it a go.
And oh man did curiosity kill the cat… Or more like chop it into little pieces and dissolve the evidence in acid. I cannot even give this book credit for chronology, because for the most part it’s never-ending ramblings. There are quite literally pages upon pages of moralising- I could fill a book… but then that’s exactly what McEwan did here. Cue lots of *groaning* aloud- cos you guys know how much I love that…
Just take a look at this: “Now that the Russian state was the political arm of organised crimes, another war in Europe was no longer inconceivable”- is this supposed to be profound? It’s like he’s always trying to give things gravitas: “A creature of the post English-as-well-as-Scottish-and-French-Enlightenment”- really??? Saying “Enlightenment” would have been too easy I suppose? Oh and the migrant crisis is used as a platform to discuss the fear of rejection and general characterisation (*spoiler alert* all of the beliefs held are equally retarded). And have a look at this- let me know at which point it pisses you off:
“Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun…”
Of course that’s supposed to be a newsreel- of which he is partially making fun (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t just call all Americans fat). So don’t think I’m saying these are McEwan’s thoughts– they’re at this point about three levels removed, filtered through a (quite literally) undeveloped character, who makes them vague and contradictory. Yes, yes, I get that he is literally making the prenatal whining of an adolescent or youth– perhaps even poking fun at the current fashion of talking in circles. Yet this way of making “social commentary” falls flat- because this nauseating voice hardly reminds me of a baby and instead strikes the tone of a middle aged man (so the reader can be forgiven for thinking this is just McEwan’s voice).
And since we’re on the subject… I’m sorry but how the hell am I supposed to suspend my disbelief that it’s a foetus? What an absolute crock. Let’s ignore the fact that it sounds like someone in their late 50s for a second (if that’s even possible) and focus on some of the blatantly retarded elements of this idea… Like how the foetus somehow manages to know what its mother is thinking. Sorry but just for the record- foetuses are not mind readers!! I can’t believe I even have to write this.
Plus there are inconsistencies- we are told early on that the baby can’t see and has limited understanding:
“When I hear ‘blue’, which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to ‘green’—which I’ve never seen. . . I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are no saying, a blank slate. But a slippery, porous slate no schoolroom or cottage roof could find use for, a slate that writes upon itself as it grows by the day and becomes less blank.”
But plenty of times they suddenly are able to visualise whole outfits:
“By nocturnal association I dress her in tight-fitting black leather jacket and jeans, let her be young, pale, pretty, her own woman.”
Whilst of course having a highly developed level of consciousness- sorry but foetuses aren’t this advanced-especially not ones with alcoholic mothers. Oh have I not mentioned that yet? This book features a heavily pregnant woman “drinking for two”. Charming- but lifeless arseholes are what I’ve come to expect from McEwan at this point. That and the cliché of the hero being some kind of writer for good measure (he’s a poet here- so *ding ding ding*- we have a winner). But don’t worry- these characters are so colourless and one dimensional that you won’t care enough if they live or die.
What will illicit strong reactions, however, are the Oedipal sex scenes, where the interloper “Claude” (no points for guessing who he’s meant to be in a Hamlet retelling) has sex with the mother- while the “baby” bears witness… gross.
Let’s face it though- there’s no beauty to this writing. It’s as crass and pointless as Tracy Emin’s unmade bed. In the first line, this is clear:
“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.”
Throughout the metaphors are clunky, literal and self-indulgent. With his little nods of “To be”, “She thinks I protest too much” and “No rest for the wicked”, the author bangs you over the head with “Shakespearean” imagery, meanwhile showing an inherent lack of understanding of the play. I will be blunt: there are fun, thoughtful, and bold reinterpretations of Shakespeare out there – this is none of those things. All the notes of domestic decay and the images of the interloper are overdone- especially since this is balanced in the play with the uncertainty of Claudius’ guilt. Plus, it goes on and on about Hamlet being a prisoner and how he literally “can’t say no” when his mother gets him drunk- but ultimately in the play Hamlet *does* have some agency. Worst of all is how it deals with existentialism in some of the worst lines I have ever read:
- “I wish never to be born”– way to debase Shakespearian language, mate.
- “I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be”– truly gag worthy
- “not even born yesterday”– gah- this just reminds me how dumb this idea is- I could make a song out of how many times I’ve said dumb dumb dumb…
All the careful balance of dichotomies in the play is dumbed down for the sake of a gimmick, in a book that is as pointless as it is unexciting. And I wouldn’t say all that if this hadn’t piggybacked so needlessly on the back of one of the greatest plays of all time. Just go and read/watch Hamlet. It’s not comparable to this snivelling drivel.
This is right up there as one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And for only the second time in this blog’s history, I’m awarding this book a *banana peel*
So today I have a fun question for you all- what is your *least favourite* book? What book do you think is an absolute stinker? Let me know in the comments!