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.