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Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)
Ever since I was made to study ‘Enduring Love’ in school at the age of fifteen, I have been an aficionada of Ian McEwan’s dark, often harrowing and ever sophisticated prose. Having read and loved The Cement Garden, Atonement and On Chesil Beach in the years which followed, I was keen to see whether his latest offering, Sweet Tooth, would live up to my high expectations.
Much like its main character — Serena Frome — the book’s title is deliberately misleading and enigmatic, as Sweet Tooth has little, if anything, to do with a passion for sweet-tasting foods. Set in Britain, 1972, it is the code name for a secret mission on which Serena is sent to combat the cultural cold war threatening to tear the country apart, after being groomed for the intelligence services by the somewhat dubious figure of Professor Tony Canning. It is Serena’s duty to cultivate the talent of a promising young writer from Brighton named T. H. Haley — a duty which is quickly compromised when she falls in love with Haley and his stories, and henceforth struggles to maintain the fiction of her undercover identity.
As ever, McEwan has taken a great deal of care to research thoroughly the complex backdrop of his novel. This is reflected in his characters’ dexterous discussions of Cold War history and politics, of literature and mathematics, as well as in his overarching portrayals of MI5 and 1970s Britain. Fortunately, the story proper doesn’t suffer for it; McEwan is adept at striking a balance between fact and fiction, and ‘reality’ is skilfully interwoven with creative intrigue to produce a highly engaging read.
‘Sweet Tooth’ is not without its flaws, however. For one thing, Serena’s catalogue of lovers throughout the story seems improbable and excessive — Jeremy Mott, for example, appears to perform little function beyond reinforcing Serena’s profile as a borderline nymphomaniac. For another, the narrative is frequently interrupted to recount at length a number of Haley’s short stories — ostensibly to demonstrate why Serena develops an infatuation with him — which becomes tedious and can result in a loss of focus on the reader’s part.
I fully accept that both of these points can be countered by the argument that they are integral to the climactic, self-reflexive twist of the book, which I will not go into here for obvious reasons. Yet, for me, the ending is the biggest problem of all. While I admire McEwan’s attempt at conflating the duplicity of espionage with the artifice of fiction, I was disappointed to discover that the story’s close bears a striking parallel to the ending of Atonement, and I consequently saw it coming long before it arrived.
In my view, the novel’s key point of interest lies in speculating why Tony Canning might have chosen to recruit Serena, his secret student lover, for MI5 in the first place:
‘By sending me, harmless me, Tony may have wanted, as a farewell gesture, to show his old employers that he was harmless too. Or, as I liked to think, he loved me, and thought of me as his gift to the Service, his way of making amends.’ (p. 255)
It could have been more satisfying, therefore, for the story to end with Serena dramatically uncovering Canning’s reasons for abandoning her in the lay-by and disappearing off to his Baltic island to die alone, allowing her to reflect on her own mistakes, betrayals and unprofessionalism. This, of course, is just a personal preference.
I cannot deny that I devoured this novel just as quickly as any of McEwan’s previous titles, and I continue to be enchanted by his beguiling way with words. But perhaps this is precisely why the rather predictable ending of ‘Sweet Tooth’ struck me as a bit of a let-down: it didn’t quite do justice to the poignant and understated narrative artistry that I have come to expect from its author.