Reader, Writer, Lover, Spy

Serena Frome (rhymes with ‘plume’) is a beautiful Cambridge mathematics graduate, who, after a brief affair with a professor, is, through him, recruited by MI5. There, she is given charge of enlisting for Operation Sweet Tooth (a project that subisidises writers and artists and insidiously hopes that they will echo the organisation’s views) a young writer called Tom Haley. Serena is captivated by Haley’s writing; and then by Haley himself. What happens after that comprises the narrative engine of Ian McEwan’s absorbing new novel.

McEwan takes the tropes and conventions of the spy thriller (John Le Carre’s presence hovers over this book) and turns this novel into a funny, meta fictional hall-of-mirrors act. Haley’s stories – dark, macabre, confounding – put one in mind of McEwan’s early work. And when we see Serena devouring them and commenting on them, we can’t but feel that McEwan is – largely charitably, on occasion with ironical mockery – looking back at his younger self.

That is not all. Martin Amis appears in the novel; so does the critic and poet Ian Hamilton (who, at the New Review, gave McEwan his first break); and McEwan’s first publisher, the legendary Tom Maschler turns up as well. The author has said that he always knew he would write about the early 1970s in England, and has called Sweet Tooth a ‘distorted autobiography’. There are plenty of nods, nudges and winks, and the teasing play between life and fiction recalls some of the fiction of Philip Roth – of whom McEwan is an admirer.

Because it is narrated in Serena’s voice, the novel does not have the stylistic flourish characteristic of McEwan. London in the early 1970s, bleak and unrecognizable from the world city that it is today, is powerfully evoked. But there are not in Sweet Tooth as many careful and pleasurable set pieces as there usually are in a McEwan novel.

More than anything else, though, Sweet Tooth is a book about reading and writing, about how readers respond to writing, how subjective literary taste can be, and how various. The ending is stunning and reminds us that despite his huge mainstream success with Enduring Love, Atonement and Saturday, McEwan still has not lost touch with that part of his writing self that gave us those remarkable, disquieting early stories and novels.

Here is an interview with McEwan.

And here is McEwan talking about the short novel (a form that particularly suits him, although Sweet Tooth isn’t a short novel).

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