Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth seems to be many things on the surface: a spy thriller, a tale of forbidden love, a portrait of seventies Britain with all its subtly suffocating Cold War anxieties. Perhaps the novel’s great triumph is that it is all of these simultaneously, yet none of them comprehensively. But, being McEwan, there is something more unique going on here too…
Serena Frome (rhymes with ‘plume’), beautiful, forthright and intelligent, is drafted into MI5 in the wake of a liaison with a university professor at Cambridge, where she studied mathematics at her mother’s behest. Her true passion is literature, and her gorging on paperbacks appears the motive for her recruitment and, later, her assignment on ‘Sweet Tooth’ – a secret scheme in which the government financially (and unbeknownst to them) encourages writers to produce anti-communist tomes. Tom Haley, a lecturer at Sussex University and budding writer, is one of the project’s beneficiaries. The attraction between the pair is immediate; Serena initially falls for his stories, and then for their creator.
Haley’s short stories that so engross Serena are, in many ways, more compelling plots than the narrative that contains them. There is a man who falls in love with a shop-window mannequin, but becomes violently jealous, suspicious of her lack of enthusiasm in the bedroom, certain she is thinking of another; there is the tale of a married couple, each surveilling and disloyal to the other, both complicit in feigning ignorance. The intrigue contained within the tales is fascinating, to a level that Sweet Tooth, for the most part, never achieves. Descriptions of MI5 may well be accurate, perhaps aided by advice McEwan yielded from John le Carré, but their water-cooler mundanity scarcely enthralls (whether it is meant to is another matter). Even Frome’s mission, as strung-out and anticipated as it is, is something of a lead balloon.
McEwan cannot help but be compelling, and ‘Sweet Tooth’ the mission isn’t the real espionage tale here; Sweet Tooth the novel is. Clues litter the narrative: Haley’s short stories are early works of McEwan’s, full of macabre humour and reminiscent of The Cement Garden, his first full-length work. Haley teaches at Sussex University, where McEwan studied, and the pair share the same editor, frequent the same Soho pub and, in a particularly funny passage, Tom shares a stage with a young Martin Amis, just as McEwan did one night – like Haley, he died on stage that night too. There is a triangle of espionage at work here, on one level taking place between the characters and each other, on another between types of fiction and authorship.
McEwan’s prose throughout fluctuates. The novel is beautifully written, assuredly recreating seventies Britain and composing two duplicitous protagonists, yet there are hiccups. Occasionally Sweet Tooth errs on being either overwritten or obvious, which stand out amid what is generally a piece of elegant simplicity. And the couple, despite the complex machinations of their coupling, often seem rather languid. Yet, without giving anything away, the final chapter leaves one believing that these question marks are deliberate, clues to his startling (and startlingly romantic) final twist. Perhaps McEwan’s ambiguity is rather fitting for MI5 after all.