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Review of ‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan

September 4, 2012 4 comments

Is it possible to write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite gender? Is it possible to write a review of an Ian McEwan novel without giving too much away?

The answer is, of course, it depends how good a writer you are. Kirsten McDougall presented Philip Fetch, in The Invisible Rider, so authentically it is hard to see how she could have known all the thoughts and feelings of a middle aged male lawyer. Some people loved Lloyd Jones’ Matilda in Mr Pip, whereas others had a problem with him writing as a 13 year old girl. And then there’s Ian McEwan. Perhaps the best known instance of McEwan writing as a woman is his masterpiece of trickery, Atonement, which includes McEwan writing convincingly not only as a woman, but as a woman writing as a woman. So there’s no doubt he has form in this matter.

The idea of trickery resonates throughout Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s latest novel. The book starts with the main character, Serena Frome, telling us how she was recruited into MI5 in the 1970s, where there’s plenty of trickery and deception going on. She’s a voracious reader who prefers her authors to ‘make use of the real world’ and avoid ‘tricksy haggling over the limits of their art… .’ On no account should writers ‘infiltrate their own pages as part of the cast.’ The clues about what McEwan is doing with Sweet Tooth come thick and fast and don’t let up.

But, like the very best novels, the extent of McEwan’s ambition and achievement can’t be seen until the last sentence has been read and fully absorbed.

McEwan layers on the literary content thickly, with the story echoing his own experiences of being published for the first time in the 1970s. His friends and publishers get name checks, as do various pubs, restaurants and parks. McEwan also indulges us with jokes. The ‘new fangled Booker prize’ gets several mentions, and he plays around with the name of a former director-general of MI5 and makes her a high-flying contemporary of Serena.

Its clear from what we’re reading that Frome wouldn’t have liked McEwan’s writing in the 1970s, and perhaps still wouldn’t today. We hear about other writers Frome likes and doesn’t like, giving us plenty to think about in respect of McEwan’s own likes and dislikes. There’s a lot of reading between the lines as the book reaches its middle act, especially when Frome starts to quote chunks of her lover Tom Haley’s newly penned fiction to the reader, some of which clearly reflects McEwan’s own writing from the 1970s.

McEwan shows great confidence in delving into a world so well chronicled by the likes of John le Carre and Ian Fleming, although he sets it a few years after Smiley’s era. Still, the idea that no-one knows anything, that the respective agencies are actively competing with each other – the dissatisfaction ‘five’ has for ‘six’ comes through strongly – and that around every corner, in every cramped, smoke-filled office there might lurk someone working for the other side, are themes that many readers will be familiar with. Why shouldn’t McEwan write about spies, the 1970s and people who like books and writing? It seems so obvious now he’s done it.

Less familiar is the idea that the secret service might have funded artists and writers, which is central to the book and on which the real story hangs.

I’m not going to give away the main plot twists here. For me, one of the pleasures of Sweet Tooth is McEwan’s skilful circling back, his ability to make everything that happens matter one way or another. As connections are revealed and Serena’s personal desires – for literature and for love – conflict with her professional duties, the dramatic tension builds.

So, has McEwan written convincingly as a woman in Sweet Tooth? Well, Serena Frome is certainly a strongly drawn character. She has clear views, and even when she has doubts she knows very clearly that she has them. She consistently tells us what she thinks, and how she feels, about her lovers and potential lovers. She is unexpectedly confident about sex, and yet there are other things she doesn’t tell us that we would have perhaps expected her to know. She appears to be consistently interested in the social turmoil around her – the cold war ending, the UK economy on its knees, the Troubles at their peak – but is that a true reflection of the interests of a bishop’s daughter, educated at Cambridge, even one who works for MI5?

Would Serena really act and react like this? Perhaps she would.

The ending was too quick, too neat and, if I dare say so, too contrived for me. It explained too much about some things and not enough about others. I can’t really say anymore without giving McEwan’s game away, and I certainly don’t want to do that. Perhaps after reading Sweet Tooth you’ll come back to this review and notice my own clues about what happens in the book, and decide whether I’ve said too much, or not enough.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sweet Tooth and while the ending didn’t exactly satisfy me, it did have me shaking my head once again in admiration of McEwan’s inventiveness in giving fictional words on the page a reason to be there, his ability to entertain, and the sheer audacity and confidence that is necessary to attempt things other writers wouldn’t even contemplate.

The review copy was provided by Booksellers NZ, and this review is also posted on their blog.

Published by Random House NZ, August 2012

ISBN 9780224097383

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