Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
I went straight from Ian McEwan’s first work, his harrowing short story collection First Love, Last Rites, to his latest work, Sweet Tooth, a significantly more palatable affair. Actually, this all works quite well, because in many ways Sweet Tooth is McEwan’s repudiation of his shock-for-shock’s sake approach of his earliest stories, as well as being a pretty good story in itself.
Sweet Tooth takes place in the late 1970s, primarily during the Winter of Discontent. It follows Serena Frome, a beautiful young maths graduate from Cambridge who is recruited into MI5 through her relationship with an older university professor. Although initially at the bottom of the pile, she is soon recruited into ‘Operation Sweet Tooth’, where writers are covertly funded by MI5 to unwittingly create anti-Soviet propaganda. Serena is assigned to Tom Haley, a young writer at the University of Sussex, so she goes to him posing as a representative of an organisation which funds promising writers. It’s not long before they begin a relationship, with Serena hiding her true identity as an agent of MI5.
The actual plot of Sweet Tooth is fairly predictable. It follows familiar paths, and is in some ways a fairly conservative book. There’s an undeniable autobiographical element to the book, with Haley in many ways paralleling McEwan himself early in his career. I’m always interested when authors portray themselves in a book from the point of view of another character, such as Stephen King’s role in his Dark Tower books. McEwan is probably kinder to himself than King was, but there’s still a strong feeling that Haley is an immature figure. After reading First Love, Last Rites, I’m inclined to agree.
I’m a sucker for a good story-in-a-story, and Sweet Tooth is packed with them. Serena reads a handful of short stories by Haley, and relays them to the reader, and they’re actually all very entertaining, as well an interesting insight into McEwan’s own creative process. McEwan parodies his own previously overly verbose writing, although his style has become a lot more restrained, and better.
Serena is an amusing character, whose shallowness and element of self-obsession makes her a difficult to like figure, but still sympathetic enough to make a compelling protagonist. Haley is an enigmatic figure, almost impossible to separate from McEwan himself.