Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Sweet Tooth takes as its subject the culture wars of the early seventies and MI5's murky involvement in them. With the Cold War raging, Serena Frome is recruited as a secret spy, but promptly falls in love with the writer she is employed to manipulate. McEwan’s page-turner of a novel examines life, literature, politics and betrayal.

Ian McEwan's latest novel makes for addictive reading. From the opening paragraph the pacing and sheer skill of the narrative creates an aura of suspense that doesn't let you go until the very last page.

The plot is one of intrigue, false personalities and deceit. It's the politically turbulent early seventies and Cambridge student Serena Frome, a mathematics student who also likes to speed read her way through a vast array of novels, is unknowingly groomed by her boyfriend-professor for a role as a secret agent within MI5. The project is called 'Sweet Tooth' and the aim is to recruit left leaning anti-communist writers and get them to produce ideologically sound novels and short stories.

A fake foundation has been set up to through which to funnel cash to the writers who unwittingly think the whole deal is legitimate. They get a weekly stipend, enough to ensure they don't have to slave away at thankless jobs and can devote more time to their writing.

Secret agent Frome is set up with Tom Haley, an up and coming short story writer. Within barely a few pages of Serena having met Haley she starts a romantic affair with him. Of course she doesn't tell him that the foundation is a front for MI5, and that she's a fully paid up secret agent who has made a mockery of his literary career. Holding reality at bay, she continues the affair, continues lying to Tom Haley, and ironically enough falls deeper and deeper in love with him. The reader knows that none of this can end happily, yet we read on to see the train crash in all its emotional goreyness. The twist is that, indeed, perhaps things can end happily.

Along the way Sweet Tooth provides lots of fascinating detail about MI5, spy scandals, and the cold war politics of the early seventies. McEwan has researched Britain’s secret service and the culture wars of the times, which comes through and gives the novel a very realistic feel. The nature of the plot - with its complex intersection between writing, personal relationships and cold war propaganda - proposes many questions about the relationship between literature, life and politics.

The novel seems to juggle three distinct themes. Firsty, there is an investigation into the role of literature and politics. This makes Sweet Tooth feel like something George Orwell could have dreamt up. Secondly, the novel is happily obsessed with the business of reading and writing. Thirdly, and most importantly, Sweet Tooth, is about relationships and the sometimes chimerical nature of love.

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan. Published by Jonathan Cape and Bodley Head. ISBN: 9780224097383  RRP: $32.95