Contrary to the way it’s been marketed, Sweet Tooth is not an espionage novel. Not really. Among other things, it’s a love story, coming of age tale and meditation on literature. By fictionalising elements of McEwan’s youth, it also works as a strange composite of fiction and reality. Long-time McEwan fans will enjoy the various nods to his past work. There are myriad references, and an interesting look at the relationship artists have with their work.
Set in the afterglow of the Cold War, Sweet Tooth details Serena Frome’s (rhymes with ‘plume’) unlikely ascent from plucky academic to MI5 agent. So far, so James Bond, but Serena’s mission is not to take down the irrepressible Jaws; she is sent, as MI5’s resident bibliophile, to covertly cajole promising young writer, Tom Haley. Under the guise of representing a national literary foundation, Serena commissions Tom in the hopes that she can get him to unwittingly pen novelistic propaganda. It’s the 70s, see, and an international war of ideas rages. Britain is facing industrial unrest, and MI5 are desperate to influence the national culture. One of their approaches is to use well-received fiction writers to lure left-of-centre European intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective.
Excepting perhaps the superficial glory of ascending rank, Serena is motivated only by her own interests. She’s impetuous, disdains authority and is caught, a cog, in a very man-made political machine. It takes all of five minutes for Serena and Tom to fall for each other, and here’s where the book – a romantic thriller, more than anything – truly takes flight. Serena is all too aware their relationship stands on a foundation of lies, yet cannot help but disappear down the rabbit hole. What ensues is a very tangled affair. Tom and Serena’s relationship is wonderfully nuanced; sincerely, I felt like a voyeur privy to the relationship of a three-dimensional couple.
Some criticism has been levelled at Sweet Tooth – namely, at McEwan’s offensively passive female lead, and the very measured pace at which proceedings unfold. Neither impeded my enjoyment, though it’s worth mentioning that things do take a while to get going. Even Serena’s back story is engaging, though, thanks largely to McEwan’s assured prose. Some claim he overwrites, but I find his style intoxicating. Sweet Tooth contains some of his strongest prose to date – a fact even his detractors would struggle to deny. Even if you don’t typically enjoy slower narratives, Sweet Tooth is worth persisting with. A delicious metafiction twist awaits at the end, one that quietly blew my mind and repurposed every criticism I thought I would raise. That McEwan can still surprise this far into his career is no small feat. For my money, Sweet Tooth ranks up there with his best work (it’s certainly a nice reassurance after Solar, which was universally considered a misstep). I would recommend it to all lovers of literary fiction. Just don’t let the PR fool you; James Bond, this ain’t.