Like many of Ian McEwan’s books, Sweet Tooth (2012) is a story with a twist. For better or worse, before reading it I saw a review which unconscionably gave away that twist. This means I didn’t read the book in the way the writer intended; I already had knowledge that put a different slant on things. I’m not going to reveal the twist, but it may be that my reading is a bit perverse because of knowing it. I did wonder if the reviewer gave away the twist because it made the book more interesting to write about. If so, I can see there may be some excuse for this; the twist means there are a whole series of double meanings which give a sardonic humour to the story. Yet you can’t pick up on the double meanings unless you know the twist, read the book twice, or have far better recall than I do. But even though these double meanings are clever, knowing what’s to come meant I didn’t find the story compelling.
Sweet Tooth is billed as a spy story, but even trying to think about it without foreknowledge of the twist, it lacked for me the interest, let alone the high tension of good spy novels like Le Carré’s. In the late 1960s, beautiful young Serena Frome goes to Cambridge to study mathematics because her mother wants her to. She spends most of her time reading fiction and doesn’t get a good degree, but enjoys various affairs, the most important being with a History tutor, who is much older than she is. He gets her an interview with MI5, who take her on. Most of the work she (and other female graduates with much better degrees) gets to do is purely clerical. But because of her knowledge of fiction, she is given the task of vetting an author who MI5 think might fit into an operation they have named Sweet Tooth. Believing that much of the literature and commentary of the time is left-leaning, they want to subsidise, through a compliant Foundation, authors that might be critical of communism and the Eastern bloc – rather similar to the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. She is sent as a representative of the Foundation to interview the writer, a university lecturer named Tom Haley. He is pleased to accept the stipend offered because he wants to write without having to spend most of his time teaching. But Serena and Tom find they are mutually attracted. Furthermore, one of her colleagues is also jealously attracted to her. What could possible go wrong? The story is helped along by a minor twist concerning her Cambridge lover, with the major twist coming at the end.
Of course even without the twist – though the novel is inconceivable without it – there is much more to the book than a genre-style spy story. (I was amused to note that McEwan has adopted some of Le Carré’s spy jargon, with ‘the watchers’, a ‘honey trap’ and the ‘fifth floor’. I’m sure he’s being deliberately referential.) There is the usual clever if somewhat facile characterisation, achieved with minimum fuss; you can for example perfectly visualise Serena’s parents, though is there a resort to stereotypes involved? I found Serena rather shallow. And then there is the interesting setting of London in the bleak years of the early 70’s, the coal strike, the three day week and the Irish troubles; people wore dressing gowns at work over coats to try and keep warm in unheated buildings. Even if the suspense isn’t as developed as in a Le Carré’ spy story, there is some tension as Serena is increasingly embroiled in lies which threaten both her personal and professional life. There are also some dead-ish ends which feel a bit like padding.
Because Serena reads lots of fiction, and because she is involved personally and professionally with a writer, McEwan has lots of opportunity to comment on literature. Serena tells us – the story is presented in the first person – that she doesn’t like post- modern writers who were ‘determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions … I believed writers were paid to pretend … So no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in books I liked for the double agent.’ She believes in ‘mutual trust’ between reader and writer, and dislikes the ‘fictional trick’. Haley, on the other hand, admires post-modern novelists – though he isn’t really given much scope to explain why. And of course McEwan’s work is the height of ‘tricksy’, the novel depends on a fictional trick. And what would a spy story be without a double agent? In terms of her relationship with Tom, Serena is her own double agent. The point of all this cleverness is only made clear at the end.
Some reviewers have suggested that there is a large measure of autobiography in McEwan’s presentation of Haley. Serena reads and summarises – at boring and surely unnecessary length – several of Haley’s short stories and his short dystopian novel; the stories in particular apparently sound very like some of McEwan’s early short stories, given their bleak or ‘noir’ character. (The short novel actually sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only worse.) Haley’s agent and publisher are, or were, actually McEwan’s. Haley teaches at the University of Sussex, where McEwan did his undergraduate degree; he is clearly satirising Selena’s snobbish approach to the place. And Haley reflects McEwan’s literary tastes, as you can see from the final twist.
The novel has generally been favourably reviewed, for example here, and here, so my rather lukewarm response may indeed arise from knowing the twist. But I don’t think so; indeed its cleverness, which lies in its ‘tricksy’ nature, is not evident on a first read (though maybe the reviewers knew the twist …) McEwan is generally considered to be an excellent story teller, but I just can’t get excited about this one. It’s too clever by half. You can see from my reviews that I didn’t much like Solar (2010), reviewed here, or even his Booker Prize winning Amsterdam (1998) reviewed here. So best read the book. Twice. If you can be bothered.
You can find out more about Ian McEwan and his work here.