Friday 7 September 2012

Book review: Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan (2012)

It goes without saying that a book of literary fiction that also deals in the secret world of spies is going to appeal to a certain class of reader. Like me. I love good lit fic and I love good spy novels. I suspect that a lot of people are the same. In this sense, Ian McEwan shows himself to be quite adept at reading the contemporary book market. Having said that, you'd also expect the book to work and I must admit that, for me, Sweet Tooth does work - and on many levels. I'm not sure that this latest McEwan is going to break any sales records - it's a bit strange and beautiful - but because it's so ambitious the verdict from me is overall a very positive one. I read the book with enjoyment all the way through and came away with a slight tingling, a ringing in my inner ear caused by that pleasant surfeit of poetry that you expect to find at the end of an accomplished novel.

On one level - the level of historical interest - the book opens with a swinging stride. McEwan defiantly concertinas the childhood and adolescence of the heroine, Serena Frome, using techniques he has gathered from his own readings of genre fiction. Later on the pace will become more measured, but the author's idea at the outset is to give us easy and fast access to the bare bones of Serena's character so that we can get on with what we are really interested in - the secret services. Serena is recruited by an academic at Oxford introduced to her by her then-boyfriend; the academic will also become her lover, then he will mysteriously disappear after an equally mystifying falling-out. But Serena takes all of this in her stride. The era is the early 70s, and life for a young woman in a traditional-minded bureaucracy in London is not all peaches and cream. This aspect of the novel - its historical specificity - is delightful, and readers will entirely believe how the fusty, antedeluvian patriarchy of MI5 of the time could warp the ambitions of a young woman recruited to spy for her country only to be asked to type up memos and keep the records straight. It's an environment that could also be disastrous for those, like Serena's friend Shirley Shilling, whose strong natural aptitudes cause them to clash with those who uphold the status quo. You get the feeling that the reason Shirley loses her job at MI5 isn't just because of the class thing, but also because she aspires to more than the system is willing to grant her.

So far so good. The novel takes on added piquancy when Serena is given her first big operation to run. Called 'Sweet Tooth', the operation is about luring writers to accept funding from a front organisation that is actually funded by MI5. There is actual historical precedent for this, of course, and McEwan points to it in the book, but what the operation really does is kick along the plot, because not only does Serena succeed in getting Tom Haley (nice pun; he's a rising star in England's literary sky, or else a falling star) to accept the money, she also falls into bed with him. So we have, along with the risk associated with the subterfuge that always accompanies the plots of spy novels, a credible love story where there is even more at stake; Serena is an intelligent woman but she's also quite normal from the point of view of her physical and emotion needs, and romantic involvement is something that she craves. When romance is around there's also the promise of lasting happiness, and this then becomes a plot element; there is really something to lose.

In the book we are introduced to some of Haley's stories through the lens of Serena's mind as she reads them, and again McEwan does his efficient telescoping of the action they contain and their plots. Serena's natural affinity with the written word provides her with insights that are denied to some of the more literal minds working at MI5, and she must battle with them to gain acceptance for Tom's major work to date, a novella which gains market traction but which contains an apocalyptic vision of the world that on the surface might be seen to negate the effect MI5 was seeking to promote. The Cold War is raging and capitalism is to be promoted as an absolute good. Serena's superiors are sceptical of the work but she ploughs on, certain of the value of what her charge - and lover, although they don't know about this part of her life until later - is producing "for the country", as it were. Some of Tom's stories are very interesting indeed, and it's to McEwan's credit that he's able to point out the value of literary fiction in a spy story using the type of condensed style that is the stock-in-trade of genre fiction. It's an in-joke, certainly, but it's one that is worth making. You get it. It has been said by some that nothing ever happens in literary fiction, but McEwan demonstrates that this is not at all true in fact.

Tom's financial independence has ancillary benefits for an impecunious office worker based in London, and Serena is often on the train by Friday evening commuting away from the metropolis through the suburbs and the countryside south of London to Brighton, where Tom keeps an apartment. Good food and plenty of Chablis (the historical accuracy is happily accurate in these scenes) accompany Serena and Tom in their flourishing romance, and Serena is content. It's this personal stake in things that is crucial in the story as there are elements within MI5 that threaten to destroy Serena's happiness. Of particular note in this regard is a character named Max Greatorex who possesses both an attachment to Serena - cultivated before she fell for Tom - and a certain craven efficiency that, because it allies him closer to the organisation's dominant mindset, contains the seeds of danger. When Max visits Serena's flat one night, drunk and maudlin, we sense a threat that does not recede when he disappears again into the street.

Then there is the issue of how duplicity can work, for example how it really works in romance. Serena's cover remains intact - so we assume - while she and Tom enjoy all the different elements of their romance. Tom also touches on the nature of desire and honesty in his stories. McEwan intelligently brings our attention to the question of whether honesty is really important - for a writer in terms of intellectual independence, on the one hand, and for anyone in terms of love, on the other - and it is in this regard that Sweet Tooth offers the reader insights that can serve to strip away some of the routine and often ruthless patina we find in genre fiction. Literary fiction aspires to such insights and has been said to have a higher calling than genre fiction. I think that a lot of readers will find these components of McEwan's book to be the things that remain, in the end, when the book is finally put aside and the next thriller is taken up.

But what keeps you engaged in this book is just that - the thrill of romance allied with the inherently serious nature of secret service work. It's a heady mix, and it allows McEwan to help us contemplate the dangers that lie in store when a completely average bureaucracy possesses so much power to influence private lives. The stakes are real. People can be harmed. But the novel tries to go beyond that to contemplate the allure of the spy genre, and to look at why this kind of novel has such an attraction for readers nowadays. When Serena finally sits down to read Tom's long letter, at the very end of the novel, alone in his cleaned-out Brighton flat, we sit down with her and read with eagerness because the letter can tell us something about her future happiness. Will she stay with MI5? Where is Tom? Can she keep her job despite the revelations that have compromised the operation? Is her career more important than her love life? These are a lot of questions, but this novel tries to answer even more than these. Serena may not be much better than she deserves to be, but I think it can accurately be said that McEwan is a very good and imaginative writer, and his latest venture is worthy of the reputation he has built up over the past decade or so. Fans will not, I think, be disappointed.

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