From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
If thereâ€™s a rule book for professional spies, one of the first rules has to be â€śnever fall in love with your mark.â€ť Seems fairly obvious, no? Unfortunately, itâ€™s a rule that junior MI5 operative Serena Frome instantly breaks. And the hard lessons she learns make up the bulk of Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwanâ€™s surprisingly hopeful new novel about cultural espionage in 1970s London, when the Cold War was in one of its many endless lulls.
Serena, a reluctant student of mathematics with a passion for books, enters the world of Englandâ€™s famed spy organization with the help of a lover (who may or may not be a double agent â€” one of the many obligatory twists and turns in any spy novel). Once there, sheâ€™s assigned to a project code named â€śSweet Tooth,â€ť the goal of which is to fund the work of artists who will hopefully churn out pro-democracy, anti-communist work to capture the hearts and minds of the people.
Her mark: a budding writer named Tom Haley, who bears some fairly obvious autobiographical and literary connections with McEwan himself (including a penchant for morbid stories involving obsessive lovers and violent mannequin sex). Thereâ€™s an instant connection, and in a matter of pages the two are sleeping together, Tomâ€™s writing his first novel (which goes on to win a major literary award), and Serenaâ€™s feeling the guilt of stringing her lover along in the interest of national security.
The heart of Sweet Tooth, oddly enough, is the novelâ€™s final chapter, which casts a blinding new light on everything weâ€™ve read before. If you havenâ€™t been paying attention to the novelâ€™s subtle agenda, it hits you like a sucker punch. Whether or not you find the ending a cop-out, a tacky use of postmodern trickery or a brilliant example of narrative manipulation depends, in a sense, on whose reading habits you identify with: Serenaâ€™s love of straightforward novels about marriage or Tomâ€™s devotion to darker, more manipulative tales.
What was originally a novel about spying eventually transforms into a novel about something equally secretive: the act of writing. McEwan pulled a similar stunt at the end of his masterful novel, Atonement; it worked better there. But while Sweet Tooth certainly has its share of deception and emotional manipulation, the novel is tenderer than anything McEwanâ€™s written before.
In its own strange way, Sweet Tooth is the authorâ€™s first novel with a truly happy ending. And for that alone, itâ€™s worth reading.