Monday 11 February 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I read a large part of Ian McEwan's novel, Sweet Tooth, at an airport waiting for a plane. There was a lot of noise and distraction, so not the best setting for a nicely-crafted book like this. Fortunately the voice of its young female narrator is hard to ignore as is the tale she tells.
    Serena Frome isn't a particularly nice heroine - she's far too pleased with herself. But she's the kind of character that stuff happens to, probably because she is beautiful enough to get noticed, and confident enough to move among people who can pull strings. In this case it's MI5. 
    It all begins at Cambridge, as it often does, when heading for a rather average third in maths, Serena meets Tony Canning, an academic in his fifties. Tony takes a shine to her, gives her a good grounding in politics, history and a bit more besides, then dumps her just before her interview with the secret services.  
    Although she starts out her MI5 career as a mere underling, a job that is little more than a file clerk, Serena wonders why she has been taken on, as all the other girls in her department have far better degrees than her, and apart from Cockney Shirley, are rather posher too.
    Serena is weirdly attracted to stand-offish Max, who is climbing the career ladder. Max could be rather good looking, if only he'd chuck the tweed jacket and grow his hair over his sticky-out ears - this is 1973, after all. Max helps Serena to get a more interesting assignment, the Sweet Tooth of the title. Serena has to fake a position with an arts foundation to offer a stipend to a promising young writer, Tom Haley, who, with a bit of encouragement, could be persuaded to write novels containing anti-Communist sentiments.
    We're in the middle of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union is a prime concern of MI5's. Sweet Tooth brings in all the politics of the time and the dreariness of the Heath years, when the miner's strike was in full swing, and Irish rebels were blowing things up and posing a constant threat. There are wonderful scenes where Serena and her colleagues wear fingerless gloves plus overcoats and dressing gowns at work - the heating has been turned down because of the crisis over coal. 
    Her grim little flat is not much to go home to, either - her pay doesn't extend to much - so it is no wonder that she is drawn into the world of her unsuspecting author and the things they enjoy together: spending his stipend on wine and dining out, having sex and talking about books.
    Serena can't tell Tom who is really paying for it all, just as she can't tell her bosses just how close she has become to Tom. So things start to get very complicated. On top of all this she thinks she may have been followed, and then there's the question of what really happened to Tony.
    Ian McEwan builds the tension very nicely. There are plenty of novels about young women of this era and their 'education'. Throw in MI5 and chances are you've got a nicely simmering plot, even if Serena doesn't have to steal Soviet plans or help get an agent out from behind the iron curtain. 
    However, the end of the book came as a big shock. But thinking back to other McEwan novels, why would I be surprised? (Remember Atonement, oh, yes, and what about Amsterdam?) I know the 'up-in-the-air' ending is a favourite with many writers, but sometimes it's good to read a story that really goes somewhere, with an ending that makes you think: 'Oh, ho! That's what it was really all about!' 
    Yet another five star novel from a terrific author.

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