From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
If there’s a rule book for professional spies, one of the first rules has to be “never fall in love with your mark.” Seems fairly obvious, no? Unfortunately, it’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 McEwan’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 England’s famed spy organization with the help of a lover (who may or may not be a double agent — one of the many obligatory twists and turns in any spy novel). Once there, she’s assigned to a project code named “Sweet Tooth,” 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). There’s an instant connection, and in a matter of pages the two are sleeping together, Tom’s writing his first novel (which goes on to win a major literary award), and Serena’s feeling the guilt of stringing her lover along in the interest of national security.
The heart of Sweet Tooth, oddly enough, is the novel’s final chapter, which casts a blinding new light on everything we’ve read before. If you haven’t been paying attention to the novel’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: Serena’s love of straightforward novels about marriage or Tom’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 McEwan’s written before.
In its own strange way, Sweet Tooth is the author’s first novel with a truly happy ending. And for that alone, it’s worth reading.