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Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwan


Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
© Nan A. Talese
Nan A. Talese, 2012

Ian McEwan is not interested in telling a simple, straightforward story. His fiction (as with most stories) can be reduced to basic emotional arcs of love, loss and betrayal, but many shocking layers would need to vanish in order to streamline McEwan's prose. His oeuvre is built from twisted tales of carnal depravity and sudden violence, from the incest of The Cement Garden to the scarring hot air balloon accident that opens Enduring Love.

But that's exactly what happens in a McEwan novel: themes of love (or loss, or longing) endure despite all the madness McEwan puts his characters through. Even his most appalling early stories can have a sobering side: the affair between the protagonist and her helper monkey in "Reflections of a Kept Ape," or the hypersexual tale "Dead As They Come," about a tryst between a man and a mannequin (both published in the 1978 collection In Between the Sheets), can be simplified into love stories if the reader allows.

Sweet Tooth, McEwan's twelfth novel, is deceptively simple and difficult to approach without expecting the author's characteristically shocking turns. Set in the early 70s, the novel tells the story of Serena Frome, a math whiz with a voracious literary appetite who gets pulled into a secretive life working for MI5. While at Cambridge, Serena finds herself drawn to world politics and channels this interest into a literary column she writes for a small periodical. Her political interest (and disparate educational background) leads her to Tony Canning, an older professor with whom she begins a passionate, summer-long affair. During their short romance, Canning introduces Serena to the idea of working in British Intelligence - he has connections at MI5 and urges Serena to an interview.

Whatever mysterious pull Canning has works: Serena is hired as a low-level employee at MI5, and her love of literature makes her the perfect addition to a secret operation called Sweet Tooth. Building from the success of the Information Research Department (which secretly bankrolled a handful of politically-minded endeavors, such as some of George Orwell's work), Serena is asked to pose as a member of a grant committee and sign the novelist T.H. Haley to be the recipient of a generous (government-funded) stipend from an imaginary nonprofit. "The writer doesn't have to be a Cold War fanatic," a colleague explains to Serena, "just be skeptical about utopias in the East or looming catastrophe in the West." If the plan works, Haley's difficult and antisocially-charged fiction will seep into the public's creative conscience and promote free-thinking and political-mindedness across the globe.
Serena, having read her fair share of spy fiction, floats through the story with an unhealthy paranoia of those around her. Could she trust anyone in her office with anything private, confide in anyone about a personal matter? Serena is almost certain she's being followed, perhaps due to some lasting secrets lingering from her affair with Canning during that summer in Cambridge. And what about Haley, a writer she was explicitly told to liaise with and throw money at: she was falling in love with him, but could he be trusted, either?

In a fascinating spin, McEwan's quintessential twist fades into focus and reveals itself to have been present in Sweet Tooth since the novel's start: Serena herself is duplicitous and disingenuous, and while it may all be in the name of espionage, her true nature is the surprising reality that McEwan unveils. She is a character built from lies, and one who is constantly lying to herself. It's almost like reading "Dead As They Come" from the mannequin's point of view: readers know the bitter, shocking truth from the start and get to watch everyone else sober up to the facts that have been there all along.

Another confounding spin comes from Haley's fiction, which Serena spends much of the center of Sweet Tooth reading and analyzing. In addition to a J.G. Ballard-esque novella, Haley is responsible for two short stories that are essentially new versions of McEwan's simian and mannequin pieces from In Between The Sheets. Further, Haley's novella sounds awfully close to "Two Fragments," another work from McEwan's 1978 collection. Why would the author resuscitate these stories, this time written from a fictional hand? Could there be an autobiographical slant hidden underneath Sweet Tooth? It's unlikely, but what do we really know about our author, or any author's true nature?

It's not easy to trust anything that happens in Sweet Tooth, and much of the novel's fun comes from letting suspicions prevail. The book hits its stride when Serena and Haley's relationship begins, but their romance is quickly diminished once Serena begins to dwell on her dishonesty. Haley and McEwan's post-modern parallels fade away as well, along with the fine-tuned political background of the novel. Unlike in McEwan's earlier fiction, where readers must peel away the difficult layers, Sweet Tooth breaks apart on its own volition. Eventually it is reduced to a novel about whether a person can be loved for who they really are. It's perfectly McEwan-esque, but oddly obvious for a book built on so many secrets.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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