” A couple of weak stories were not going to dislodge my conviction that he was an original voice, a brilliant mind—and my wonderful lover. He was my subject, my case, my mission. His art, my work and our affair were one. If he failed, I failed. Simply then—we would flourish together. ” (Ch.15, p.233)
To me McEwan has always been a hit-or-miss, despite his deft lyrical touch. The premise of Sweet Tooth, however, draws me in instantly. It’s a satisfying spy novel with a literary twist that provides both surprises and subtly sly references to his early work. The opening quickly pronounces that it is told in retrospection, by Serena Fromme, of a botched operation. A spy novel it is, but sans action. Serena’s mission for MI5, which, at the time in 1972, in the wake of Cold War, was competitive against MI6, is to recruit some pliant, rightish writers to counter to the perceived leftish journalism and commentary of the 1970s.
I doubt it. But it makes Six look idiotic and pompous, so it goes down well here. Anyway, the idea with Sweet Tooth is to strike out on our own, independently of Six or the Americans. Having a novelist was an afterthought, Peter’s whim. Personally, I think it’s a mistake—too unpredictable. (Ch.10, p.151)
A Cambridge graduate who studied mathematics at the insistence of her mother, it’s soon obvious that Serena is unfit for MI5 candidacy. She might be a daft interpreter and critical thinker given all the novels she has devoured. She is recruited almost as a legacy of her middle-aged lover, a Cambridge don, just before he ditches her. Almost half the book is devoted to this curious affair and to her initiation into an institution apparently staffed by chauvinists who treat women as menials even most of them have first-class degrees.
Weren’t we permitting into our conversation the first hints of a future together? But what future could we have had when you haven’t told me who you were? Where did you think it would end up? Surely you didn’t intend to keep this secret from me for the rest of your life. (Ch.22, p.360)
A compulsive reader, Serena is perfect to infiltrate the literary circle of Tom Haley, a talented novelist in his early career. Soon she is caught up in a dilemma: she is in love with the man she is to spy on. This is when the book finally becomes engrossing., ridding of the humdrum of Serena’s lost affair with the Cambridge don. It’s also at this point that one realizes the novel is more about her mission to find love and approval from senior than the intelligence operation. Haley’s stories, with an unusual psychological slant, also outshine the main story as well. Just as Tom and Serena slowly spiral down to a dreadful confrontation of the deceit and lies, McEwan pulls off some extraordinary surprises near the end, tricksy and satisfying. The book seems preposterous in the beginning, but the reward is immense of reader sticks to the end—as Serena fails miserably, though perhaps not so dangerously in her job as a spy. Sweet Tooth is more about writers and writing, about love and trust than espionage and cold war. But perhaps more incisively of all, it’s a novel about how we responses to fiction, and how writers conceive fiction. Writers can be as sly as spies.
378 pp. Anchor Books. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]