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Reviews: Current Books Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

“Trust No one.”

One useful definition of fiction is the arrangement of memory and imagination according to the structure of a narrative. In Sweet Tooth, the latest of his excellent novels, British writer Ian McEwan applies his considerable powers of creativity to England’s formidable intelligence agency, MI5, as it operated in 1972 when the Cold War was beginning to abate. Perhaps more significantly, McEwan creates a female protagonist as he did in his 2001 award-winning Atonement. It is the flawless depiction of MI5 operative Serena Frome’s complex character that is Sweet Tooth’s most impressive feature. And, once again as he did in Atonement McEwan sheds light on the very craft of fiction. His insights on novel-writing serve as an informative undercurrent throughout the book.

Serena Frome is the daughter of an Anglican bishop. “My home,” she tells us, “was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them.” At the time she joined MI5 Serena informed her parents that she was going to work for the Department of Health and Social Security, a respectable wing of the Civil Service.

In filling in her background Serena notes, “I was essentially a mathematician with other interests.” In school she excelled in math and went on to Cambridge to study that subject. Gradually, however, her talent for and interest in numbers faded, and in finishing her degree she received a disappointing third. Compulsive reading, particularly fiction, replaced math.

While at Cambridge Serena had a short but intense love affair with an MI5 agent. Named Tony Canning, he was a university tutor and a man old enough to be her father. Serena is comfortable with men like Canning, “…clever, amoral, inventive, destructive men. Single-minded, selfish, emotionally cool, coolly attractive.” Because of her beauty and intelligence as well as her relationship with Canning, Serena sails through the vetting process and is hired as a low level MI5 assistant, a position from which she would be sacked in less than 18 months. As the novel unfolds we learn that Canning at one time shared nuclear secrets with the Soviets – but for a noble cause.

A young woman named Shirley Shilling, one of McEwan’s compelling minor characters, joins MI5 at the same time as Serena. Shirley has a knack “for laughing boisterously at her own anecdotes and … she thought that life needed celebrating and wanted others to join in.” Is Shirley friend or foe? McEwan reminds us that MI5’s motto is “Trust no one.” The real-life Ian Hamilton, once editor of a journal, The New Review, and a prominent London literary figure is another of the book’s minor characters.

Through Serena’s musings McEwan informs us of the state of affairs in 1972. Most importantly, the Cold War was all but over. “The Russian empire was repressive and corrupt, but comatose. The new threat was terrorism…It wasn’t just the IRA or the various Palestine groups. Underground anarchists and far-left factions across mainland Europe were already setting off bombs and kidnapping politicians and industrialists.”

Nonetheless, the powers at MI5 – those “at the cloudy summits” of authority – come up with an operation to prolong animosity between England and Russia. Its code name is Sweet Tooth and its purpose is to manipulate British culture by funding writers whose politics align with those of the English government. Serena, by now an avid reader of novels and literary criticism, is assigned to recruit Tom Healy, a promising young writer of journalism and novels, currently finishing an advanced degree at Sussex University in Brighton. Serena, as instructed, offers Healy a grant from the Freedom International Foundation, a bogus organization funded by MI5. Though the offer sounds too good to be true, Healy accepts the funding. Serena and Healy become lovers the second time they meet.

Soon the two are deeply in love, implacably drawn to each other. Serena spends the work week at MI5 offices in London, taking the train to Brighton each Friday evening. She is, of course, overwhelmed with guilt. McEwan portrays her discomfort as she and Healy dine in a Brighton restaurant: “…I remembered yet again that Tom did not know who I was and what I really did and that I should tell him now…But it was too late. The truth was too weighty, it would destroy us.”

The riskier it becomes for Serena to tell Healy the truth, the more imperative it becomes because of her increasing love for him. McEwan is skillful in conveying Serena’s desperate state of mind.

As the novel concludes Healy learns of Serena’s shocking duplicity. He writes to her: “I hated you all right, and loathed myself for being a dupe, the conceited dupe who easily convinced himself that a cash fountain was his due, as was the beautiful woman on his arm as we promenaded the Brighton seafront.”

Though the book’s ending is a surprise, it is credible. It is consistent. One of several commentaries on the subject of fiction sprinkled throughout Sweet Tooth is a thought held by Serena: “ There was in my view an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.”

In addition to tapping his memory and imagination for the sake of his plot, McEwan employs a conversational tone throughout that prompts us to keep turning pages. For example, while relating the curious episode that caused Tony Canning and Serena to break up, he interrupts himself to write, “The precise sequence of events is worth recording.” And later, in the midst of an explanatory paragraph he notes, “But here’s the point.” Again, mid-explanation he pauses and writes, “Of which, more later.”

McEwan’s novel is a masterful story underpinned with wise insights about betrayal, loyalty, love, and the invention of self.