Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan


Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

The author page at the front of Sweet Tooth lists 14 previous titles from Ian McEwan and I have read them all. Obviously, I am a fan — indeed, a few years ago (say at about Atonement time, four books back) he was definitely on my short list if asked for favorite authors. My enthusiasm started to slip with Saturday, came back a bit with On Chesil Beach and fell further with Solar — but remained active enough that I was looking forward to this latest arrival. Its failure to make the Booker longlist, announced a month ago, tempered expectations and suggested it was not one of McEwan’s best — now that I have read it, I’d have to say I have no quarrel whatsoever with the jury’s assessment.

The pre-publication description of Sweet Tooth had me wondering in advance if McEwan and Simon Mawer hadn’t fallen under the influence of the same muse when it came to their latest offerings. Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky features a brainy but socially awkward young woman who is recruited to join the Special Operations Executive and is parachuted into wartime France. Sweet Tooth may be set a generation later in the 1970s but its central character, Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”), is recruited straight out of Cambridge to join the Intelligence Service — there may be no active war, but there is a Cold one, not to mention Irish disturbances that provide fodder for “intelligence” work.

Like Mawer’s Marian Sutro, whose father is a British diplomat at the League of Nations, Serena is well-bred — her father is an Anglican bishop in a charming small city in east England. Part of Marian’s attraction for the shadowy authorities was a youthful crush, not quite affair, with Clement, who is now a significant nuclear physicist in Paris. Serena for her part had a summer affair with her tutor, Tony Canning. He had done time with the MI5 and, in the grand spy novel tradition, now supplements his academic work by keeping an eye out for potential recruits — Serena will be his last.

Let’s pause for a moment here. One of the problems with reviewing “spy” novels (even those set in the Cold War) is that it is impossible to avoid spoilers. I’ll do my best but if you are spoiler-averse and interested in Sweet Tooth you might want to stop reading now.

Like the rest of her intake group, Serena’s initial assignment is in the secretarial pool — most of her work consists of organizing and retrieving files for those who are actively directing agents or observing potential threats. For the new staff, “intelligence” work is pretty much confined to office gossip about why they are watching whoever they are watching but, even more, what the current rumors are about who will next get promoted into “real” work.

Serena’s chance comes with the Sweet Tooth project. For some years, the Americans have been running a CIA program where they financed and directed the publication of anti-Communist writing that was meant to “balance” the obvious left-wing bias of conventional media. They have recently been caught out, with much ensuing embarrassment (okay, this part is real history). MI5’s response is not to avoid this tricky territory but rather to jump in with a program that will show the Americans just how to do it properly. Sweet Tooth will involve the subtle subsidy (through established arms-length foundations) of 12 young writers who have shown appropriate anti-Communist tendencies — rather than being “directed”, CIA-style, they will simply be nurtured.

There has been some dispute inside MI5, but at the insistence of the project leader one of the 12 will be a fiction writer. Serena’s Cambridge degree may be in mathematics, but she has always been a voracious reader of fiction. Her move into “real” work will be the recruitment and minding of the fiction writer.

If all this sounds as though you have read a version of it before, you probably have. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you were handed the sections from the two novels chronicling Marina and Serena’s recruitment interviews, you would have a hard time saying which was Mawer and which was McEwan. Still, at this point I had hopes that McEwan’s considerable talent would elevate Sweet Tooth above the genre norm.

Alas, the novel headed in the other direction. The chosen author is one Thomas Haley, currently completing his doctorate in English literature at the University of Sussex and teaching to make ends meet. He’s published enough journalism (an essay on the East German uprising of ’53, a “goodish piece” about the Berlin Wall) to establish his anti-communist credentials but it is his five published stories (in journals ranging from the CIA-sponsored Encounter to the highly-respected Paris Review and Kenyon Review) that have convinced the MI5 types that he is their man of fiction.

One of the weakest aspects of Sweet Tooth is the way that McEwan chooses to acquaint us with those five stories. Here’s a brief excerpt that starts the process as Serena begins to read them before heading off to meet Haley for his “recruitment” interview:

I count those first hours with his fiction as among the happiest in my time at Five. All my needs beyond the sexual met and merged: I was reading, I was doing it for a higher purpose that gave me professional pride, and I was soon to meet the author. Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage. I was pleased to have been chosen. I thought I could do the job well. I thought I might earn praise from the higher floors in the building — I was a girl who likes to be praised.

McEwan eventually takes the reader through all five stories but we see them only through the eyes of Serena the reader, with frequent italicized quotes. Here is an example from the first she reads which features Edmund Alfredus, a social history academic and Labor MP:

He’s well to the left of his party and something of a trouble-maker, an intellectual dandy, a serial adulterer and a brilliant public speaker with good connections to powerful members of the Tube train drivers’ union. He happens to have an identical twin brother, Giles, a milder figure, an Anglican vicar with a pleasant living in rural West Sussex within cycling distance of Petworth House, where Turner once painted. His small, elderly congregation gathers in a pre-Norman church whose pargeted uneven walls bore the palimpsests of Saxon murals depicting a suffering Christ overlaid by a gyre of ascending angels, whose awkward grace and simplicity spoke to Giles of mysteries beyond the reach of an industrial, scientific age.

While the tactic of description and semi-quoting is mildly amusing at first, it quickly becomes annoying — partly because McEwan extends the process through several pages every time he introduces one of the stories. If the stories are any good, let us read them I was mentally shouting. Otherwise, tidy it up quickly and get on with the book we are actually reading. Beyond raising questions about how much of Haley himself was present in each story (surely readers go through that with every novel they read and don’t much care what the answer really is?), they don’t add anyting to Sweet Tooth.

I don’t think I spoil things too much by saying that Thomas and Serena fall in love (you’ve already figured that out, haven’t you?) and that that is what will provoke the drama that eventually resolves the novel. My qualification earlier on in this review that the presentation of the stories was “one of the weakest aspects” of this novel was deliberate — for this reader, there will be an even more serious one that we can discuss in comments if you choose to read the book.

McEwan remains a superb wordswmith so most of my negative reaction was of the “surely he could do better than this” sort rather than something more serious. (In fact, as is usually true for McEwan, there are some wonderful London moments — a dinner at Sheekey’s, one of my favorite London restaurants, was particularly well-presented.) He is definitely not a difficult author to read, even when not in first rate form, and with 15 novels and story collections already under my belt, I am sure I will pick up number 16 as soon as it appears. Let’s just say that expectations have been diminishing with the last few and will be lowered yet again as a result of this disappointing effort.


23 Responses to “Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    All the reviews I’ve read have been negative so far Kevin. Yours is…disappointed, rather then negative, but I get the distinct impression you are cutting him sizeable slack due to his lengthy track record in your esteem.

    You mention the “presentation of the writing” vis a vis Haley’s output, and it’s clear despite your discretion that the plot is nonsense. I’m wondering what else left you feeling “surely he can do better then this?”

    If I was ever to read another McEwan (I’ve only read two) I think it would most likely be Black Dogs.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:


    Leroy: I’d stick with “disappointment” because there were enough moments that had value — but the overall plot is very weak. I don’t mind that it doesn’t have LeCarre like spy value because it is meant as a character work — the problem is that neither Serena nor Tom ever acquire the kind of substance that I expect from a worthwhile central character.

    The novel gets resolved when Serena’s internal minder, Max, spills the beans. He and she had almost got together, then he got engaged, then he realized he loves Serena, then she rejects him because she loves Tom (not heavy realism in that little sequence, more tedium). So, for revenge more than anything else, he tells Tom that Serena is working for MI5, who are subsidizing his work.

    The book concludes with a 20-page letter that Tom has left for Serena which goes through their history and the whole story of the unveiling. And Tom is going to reveal all this by writing a book about it. And guess what? Yup, we’ve just finished reading the book.

    Of course, McEwan is not echoing Mawer here, he is echoing himself because Atonement ended with a very similar reveal. In that case it worked — even if you suspected it coming, the whole thing made some sense in terms of the story. In this novel, it is simply lazy and not the least bit persuasive. And intellectually plagiariizing yourself is just not acceptable.


    • leroyhunter Says:

      Recycling your own plots and tricks is not a good sign when one comes to judge if a writer is on the up- or down-slope of their career.

      What did you think of the walk-ons by McEwan’s pals? And the contention that Haley is a thinly-disguised version of McEwan himself?

      Funny you mention LeCarré: the Irish Times carried a feature last week in which McEwan suggested he’d consulted the master on points of plot and athmosphere. Seems like a wasted effort given your comments. The review of the novel in the same edition was quite breathtaking in its evisceration of the book.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I liked more than disliked the walk-ons. I think one of McEwan’s skills is his ability to observe and describe some life scenes (that’s why I like his London moments) and that extends to some of the mini-appearances here. I did think locating the publishing house that Haley visits in Bedford Square (where McEwan and Annalena McAfee live) was a bit over the top. Certainly there is enough there to fuel a criticism that the book has too many “hints for loyal fans” in it. For what its worth, I thought McAfee’s novel from last year (The Spoiler) was a much more interesting read (and better satire) than this one, even if it was her debut.

        As for Haley being McEwan or vice versa, the thought did cross my mind and was quickly parked. Obviously there must be something to it — McEwan created him. And Haley’s stories, for that matter, did provoke some reminders of McEwan’s own early stories (which I still think are quite good). Trying to parse it any further struck me as a pointless exercise since I had no interest in whatever the outcome would be.

        As for LeCarre, he might have talked to him but I don’t think he listened very well.


  3. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve got this on the pile, so stopped reading your review when you mentioned the spoiler alert. I hadn’t realised he was one of your favourite writers. I’ve only read four of his books and enjoyed them all, but found the last section of Atonement a kick in the teeth — I don’t appreciate authors playing games with their readers in such a crude fashion!

    As an aside, the BBC Review Show broadcast a one-hour interview with him late last Friday night — he always garners loads of TV publicity that other authors would kill for — which I have taped to watch at a later date.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I’m assuming you have skipped my response to Leroy’s comment as well. I hesitate to say this, but given your response to Atonement it might be worth reading the spoilers. Then again, you could check back in after reading the novel.


  5. Michael Says:

    Had the same feeling when I was done with Simon’s book and if you want to muddy the water, throw in City of Women.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Michael: I was actually more actively disappointed with the finish of this novel than Mawer’s, although I thought that one ended rather flatly as well. I’ll give City of Women a miss, thanks.


  7. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: this one was on the radar with no idea of the content, but I am not much drawn to these sorts of stories so I’ll be in no rush to get to it.


  8. Mary Gilbert Says:

    The frustrating thing about McEwen is that he’s an excellent writer who has become a bit lazy and self indulgent. I’ve felt this ever since Enduring Love when the plot suddenly veered off into a pastiche thriller which he was clearly having a lot of fun writing. I felt the same with Saturday with that interminable squash game and the ludicrous finale where an evil housebreaker is thwarted by a naked woman quoting Matthew Arnold. Solar started amusingly and then became completely preposterous and silly. However I do have a fondness for the British paperback edition as the swimming pool on the cover was photographed by my daughter.
    Your review of Sweet Tooth only confirms what I fear and I don’t think I’m even going to attempt it. Soon McEwen, Mawer, Faulks and Boyd will be indistinguishable.


  9. Lee Monks Says:

    ‘Soon McEwen, Mawer, Faulks and Boyd will be indistinguishable.’ Quite: pale Le Carre imitators not playing to their respective strong suits in a feeble attempt at troubling the Asda tills.


  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Genre really isn’t as easy as it looks, a mistake too many literary authors make (John Banville being a very honourable exception, Julian Barnes too). It’s just too easy to slip into cliche, pastiche.

    Otherwise, well, Black Dogs was tremendous but this sounds like another McEwan edifice of artifice. I thought Amsterdam so bad it put me off ever reading another by him. I may one day break that, but not with this.


  11. Lee Monks Says:

    Ariel S Winter is showing off a wee bit with his latest…do check that out.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary, Lee, Max: Mary’s summary of the situation is concise and correct. What originally attracted me to McEwan (my first exposure was The Innocents) was that 95 per cent of the world he was writing about was perfectly normal — and the other 5 per cent was completely impossible. His descriptive writing made the realist world convincing, interesting and entertaining; his ability to hold the tension between normal and absurd made his plots and characters unlike any author.

    He still has the writing ability to produce moments that are exceptional — Solar had some laugh-out-loud set pieces, this one captures descriptions of English urban landscape and class/gender tensions that are superb. Alas with the lazy/self-indulgent story line (I’d lean more to self-indulgent, but it could be either), the good bits only serve as a painful indication of what might have been accomplished.

    One of the reasons that I like books more than authors is that when the author becomes a media “star” (McEwan, Amis, Byatt, Atwood, Irving and, the ultimate, Rushdie), he or she spends more time and effort working on that personality than on the craft that got them there in the first place — perhaps they are so talented that publisher-acceptable writing is just too easy. Now that I’ve checked some of the reviews in the mainstream media of this novel, I’d say that McEwan has really gone overboard on the “cute references to myself” aspects in this book — I’d have been even more annoyed with it if I had recognized them in the first place.

    And despite all that, I will buy the next book. It is apparent that all the talent is still there — it just doesn’t seem to be being applied as thoroughly and consistently as it once was.


    • Lee Monks Says:

      I think Solar has bursts of brilliance that are tantalising reminders of the McEwan of Atonement and the early stories. As you say, he never maintains that, and is now a ‘personality’ never having any need to move out of first gear. He’s marking time and shifting units like so many.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I think the lure of “personality” with all its lucrative accoutrements may be the current day version of Faust’s bargain. Perhaps Dorian Gray is an even better example — television and conventional media reflect back to McEwan what he thinks he still looks like; the rest of us who read the books are seeing something quite different.

        There is a temptation to think the process is irreversible although Martin Amis is giving me cause to wonder. I do think Lionel Asbo ranks with his best novels. And the death of Hitchens and Amis’ move to New York seems to have led to a less annoying public persona. Perhaps it might just be a temporary remission, but the Amis we are seeing this summer seems to be much closer to the guy I admired and appreciated decades ago.


  13. Oliver from Alberta Says:

    I have to confess that I’m new to McEwan. This is a big gap in my novel-reading, certainly; however, a long time ago I tried to read A Child in Time, didn’t like it, and never went back to McEwan. For some reason, I decided to give Sweet Tooth a try, and I totally loved it. The reviews have been too harsh, in my view. So many of them express disappointment that the book is not a good spy novel — “not enough Le Carre”, or whatever. The fact of the matter is that Sweet Tooth is not a spy novel. The storyline is set in a spy environment, but that is not what the novel is about. It is about novel-writing and the implied bond between the author and the reader. I found the novel to be sweet, smart, memorable, and exquisitely crafted. If it is a “weaker” novel in McEwan’s body of work, than am I ever in for a treat when I go back to read his other work!
    P.S.: Kevin, I just discovered your website and think it’s great! When it came up in my Google search for Sweet Tooth reviews, I was thinking it was going to be some simplistic fan site. But it’s much more than that. Thanks.


    • Brett Says:


      So sorry to hear that you gave up on The Child in Time. I am big admirer of McEwan’s work and think TCiT is one of his most cohesive novels – both theme and plot really balance each other, in my opinion. Give it another go.


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Oliver: First, thanks for the kind words — I hope you keep returning to the blog.

    Your take on Sweet Tooth is interesting because you do bring a fresh eye to the author. My problem was that I found the novel lazy and self-indulgent, but then I have had a lot of exposure to his previous works. I do agree that this is not a spy novel, although for my money it would have been a better read if it was.


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