Ian McEwan's 12th novel,
Sweet Tooth, sometimes feels almost like a parody of a novel by Ian McEwan. Set in England at the start of the 1970s, the story is characteristically neither here (the multi-colour burst of the 1960s) nor there (the ravenous materialism of the 1980s). Here is a nation with no obvious identity, shovelled up by communist Russia, patronised by capitalist America, and found irritating by almost everyone else - in other words, an England ripe for McEwan's judicious insights.
Its genre too has no fixed abode. An obvious comparison is to John le Carre's gritty spy thrillers. But even le Carre's plots never unfolded as carefully and incrementally as this: imagine an audiobook of
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold played at half speed. As with so much of McEwan's writing, the pleasure of reading
Sweet Tooth comes from how his precise prose teases out social details, historical titbits and the mannerisms of a character.
It's like watching a forensic scientist looking for signs of life on a threadbare carpet.
Here, for instance, is our heroine, the luminous Serena Frome, striding towards her destiny: Tom Haley, a young writer at one of Britain's then modern red-brick centres of higher education. Her mission, which Serena accepts because she works for MI6, is to win Haley's trust, fund his work in the guise of an arts organisation, and inspire what amounts to government-sanctioned propaganda. Haley, of course, will be none the wiser.
"The very word 'campus' seemed to me a frivolous import from the USA," Serena wonders. "For the first time in my life, I was proud of my Cambridge and Newnham connection. How could a serious university be new? And how could anyone resist me in my confection of red, white and black, intolerantly scissoring my way towards the porters' desk, where I intended to ask directions?"
And how could anyone resist such a measured, clear delineation of hushed, but guilty snobbery, effortless physical beauty and (via "scissoring") self-conscious urgency. You want to tell Haley: don't run with Serena Frome; you might just cut yourself. Then again, in this novel where certainty enjoys a mayfly existence, don't entirely trust even the smallest details.
Clue No1: Serena isn't the only person who finds Serena beautiful.
Clever type that he so clearly is, McEwan takes advantage of his own literary identity late in the story - a trick that doubles as a clever act of prestidigitation and a kind of artistic defence mechanism. At the startling start, it simply makes you think that McEwan and his brisk narrator are a perfect match.
"My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing."
This opening paragraph is like a movie trailer that gives away the plot of a two-hour film in 45 seconds. As its slow twist in the tail makes explicit, however,
Sweet Tooth's shocks and awe only emerge from close reading and attention to tone.
Clue No2: watch out for a second poetic sounding out of Serena's surname. It will reappear at a significant moment.
To begin with, however, Serena's brevity places her within a tradition of hero-narrators who cast off their David Copperfield shackles and declare their life open only after they leave home, hit a city, read books, have sex and get involved in a mystery: "I won't waste much time on my childhood and teenage years … My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled," she adds, sounding eerily like a sentence by Ian McEwan.
Serena's introduction to life comes at university. If Cambridge is present, then espionage can't be far behind. Serena sleep-walks through a mathematics degree (she would really rather have studied literature), falls for a secret homosexual who introduces her to his history don, whose heterosexuality manifests itself via passionate sex with Serena and a disgruntled wife.
Both homosexual and heterosexual lovers return to haunt her, a woman who falls in love like most people breathe.
The most memorable, if slightly dreary, sections occur when Serena starts work for MI6. McEwan is excellent on the bureaucratic pettiness and institutionalised sexism of this most secretive division of the English civil service. This is a time and place where lively, bright women moulder in the secretarial shadows, and where insubstantial men are promoted and powerful.
Serena's lonely bedsit existence is also neatly rendered, from the nosey neighbours who share similar solitary rooms, to the grim, loud, blokey pubs, drab food and monochrome colour scheme. Serena's reading habits are fascinating and worth attending to.
Sweet Tooth is, like previous McEwan novels, a siege of contraries. Here it is a battle between British social realism (Margaret Drabble, Fay Weldon, Iris Murdoch) which proves preferable to narrative-bending experimenters such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.
Sweet Tooth is readable and, after a fashion, exciting. The relationship between Serena and Haley, which feels like a knowing rewrite of
On Chesil Beach, holds the attention thanks to its fundamental credibility (exotic nights out in '70s England with Chablis, oysters and tipping), and a tense plot device: will Haley discover Serena's true identity?
But other intriguing questions abound. Do we fall in love with a person or a persona? Can art ever serve narrow political ends? One might argue that Haley's response to this second question (which I won't reveal) answers the point elegantly enough. Yet, elegantly enough is also
Sweet Tooth's defining flaw. McEwan's conclusion strives to make a virtue of his own quiet, observational and emotionally reticent style, but these virtues also prevent his story from ever quite taking off. It is hard to write about claustrophobic, repressed and frustrating times without exhibiting those very same constraints.
McEwan's finest novels -
The Child in Time,
On Chesil Beach - turned their understated limitations on their head with devastating finales that exposed lives not lived or revealed lives suddenly ready to bloom. In a way,
Sweet Tooth's problem is that it attempts to balance both tricks at the same time - wanting to be both Iris Murdoch and Gabriel Garcia Marquez - and has the life squeezed out of it as a result.