reviewed by Troy Martin
This isn’t a spy drama. Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is more than a novel of London or the 1970s. It’s bound with literary references, but you do not need a companion to English literature to enjoy this novel. That is the most startling effect of Sweet Tooth; it’s a serious read, while being a fun read. That consistent desire of the novelist: to be taken seriously, while also being a joy to read, while not being Dan Brown. Our narrator Serena Frome is living multiple lives. A daughter, a sister, a worker, a lover: ‘Civilisation threatened by nuclear war, and I am brooding about a stranger who caressed my palm with his thumb. Monstrous solipsism’.
In all my love for McEwan’s work, he does two things better than most writers: tension (see Child in Time) and sex (think the library scene in Atonement or the newlyweds in On Chesil Beach). Serena—her vocabulary and perception—is the most fascinating aspect of Sweet Tooth. Serena feels like our host, with liberties and no desire to hide from her faults. As a low level officer with MI5, with just a third in Mathematics from Cambridge, she is given a task: convince a promising writer to accept that the Freedom International Foundation will pay to publish his work. Of course, a certain type of work is required, one that confirms the supreme nature of capitalism, one that confirms the status quo. This status quo is elegantly layered in the novel, one of brownouts and blackouts to save electricity, unions as rebels with a cause, the constant real threat of terrorism (yes, it existed before 9/11!) and the soft Cold War that could turn hot. The 1970s wasn’t just sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The relationship between Serena and her mentor, Tony, is drawn with exquisite brush strokes. He is worn, literary, confrontational; intellectually challenging. Serena knows that this older married man may not deserve her love: ‘These clever, amoral, inventive, destructive men, single-minded, selfish, emotionally cool, coolly attractive’. But she does love him, and that captures McEwan’s style in one.
Tony parts mid-way through the novel and it’s Serena’s longing, not so much for him, but to know what happened to him, that co-exists with her second life. Her undercover life firstly as a critic then lover of the promising writer Tom Haley becomes the only life she cares for. That first life, Bishop father with a dwindling parish and a mother proud of her daughter’s low level Civil Service job, fades into the background.
McEwan has fun with literary giants and literary awards. The novel does not take itself too seriously, while being a serious novel of style and substance. Imagine, George Orwell ‘helped’ by the secret service to publish Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four! McEwan, a novelist first joining the insular literary world in the 1970s, why not write of this time again? Particularly when one can write like this.
‘I believed writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they had made up.’
Troy Martin is reading 52 books in 52 weeks.