Yesterday I bought some pretty notebooks in Waterstones, and brought them home in a carrier bag which stated “Even the most ardent reader will never reach the end of a good bookshop.” I can’t quite decide whether this pleases or depresses me, but even though it’s true we can damn well give it a jolly good try, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing while my ridiculous computer has been preventing me from posting new reviews. But I have new technology winging its way towards me as I type, so with any luck soon I’ll be posting as often as I can.
Sweet Tooth is the latest novel from Ian McEwan, published in 2012. It’s a book set in the 1970s about a young woman named Serena Frome, who was persuaded by her parents to study Maths instead of English Literature at university, didn’t do as well as was hoped, but had an affair with an English lecturer who managed to help her scrape a job with MI5. She’s given an assignment, nicknamed Sweet Tooth, of securing funding for young writer and academic Tom Haley so that he can write anti-communist works, which develops into both a full-on spying mission on Tom and also a full-on affair with him.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I’m usually drawn to Ian McEwan books because they’re a bit weird and you can never predict what will happen, and although this one wasn’t particularly weird in the slightest it was still similarly unpredictable. I wasn’t that enamoured with the character of Serena, but I liked the whole idea of the story and I especially loved the ending. It tells so much without explicitly telling anything, and it makes you rethink the whole novel. Without giving too much away, the whole perspective of the book is completely flipped by the ending, and you know exactly how a question has been answered without having to read the answer for yourself – the book itself is the answer. That probably doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense if you haven’t read the book, but it really was a clever ending and I really appreciated how it made me rethink absolutely everything that I’d read.
Sweet Tooth also gives a fascinating insight into the working lives of women at MI5. I find it both fascinating and demoralising that in the 1970s women were still confined to mundane office jobs, typing up files and cleaning safe houses instead of being able to actively participate in any operations. It sort of seemed like Serena only got the job of spying on Tom because it was thought he’d fancy her, and that’s really quite depressing. What’s also intriguing is the fact that, while operations like Sweet Tooth funding propagandist writers didn’t really exist at MI5, it was based on similar(ish) events which happened in the CIA and includes references to real people either directly or through character adaptations. There’s a very strong sense that the 1970s was a period of secrecy, and it all seems incredibly complicated and involved. Who is really funding Tom’s work? Is it MI5 or some other organisation? What exactly are they funding him for? I’ve made no secret of the fact that I very easily muddle all the ‘ism’ words, including communism, and that I can never quite get it straight in my mind, so it’s fair to say that some aspects of the novel did go over my head a bit (although I doubt a more competent person would have a problem with it). I wasn’t always sure exactly what the object of spying on Tom was meant to achieve, but Serena seemed a tad confused by it all at times too so it seems there was definitely a lot of game playing and double bluffs and the like going on.
I think one of my favourite things about Sweet Tooth is all the literary references it contains. In a way it’s a book about reading, and while it refers to the works of other writers and literary criticism of their works by both Tom Haley and Professor Canning (the lecturer Serena had an affair with), it also refers to earlier works of Ian McEwan’s. Some of the short stories written by Tom Haley in the book are actually rehashed versions of some of Ian McEwan’s own short stories, some of which were published and some of which were abandoned. Sweet Tooth is brimming with stories within the story, and not just in terms of the short stories and novels written by Tom, but also due to the ending which reveals that we, the readers, have actually been reading a slightly different story the whole time without realising it. It’s a very clever novel, and rather more complicated than it first appears, and I’d be absolutely fascinated to sit down with Ian McEwan and have a long chat about exactly how he went about writing this book.
I would absolutely recommend reading Sweet Tooth. It wasn’t quite what I expected from an Ian McEwan book, but I like the fact that he keeps surprising me and that you never quite know what you’re going to get when you crack open his pages. Even when you think you’ve got him sussed, he’ll twist everything at the last minute and throw in an ending that changes everything you thought you knew about the characters and the story itself, and that’s why he’s such an exciting author to read. There’s no ‘Ian Macabre’ in Sweet Tooth, and yet he’ll keep you turning those pages until the hours have flown by and you’re suddenly at the end without realising that any time had passed. Okay so the character of Serena as a beautiful young woman using her feminine wiles and sex to achieve her goals and wrap men around her little finger may seem clichéd (and may make her difficult to like actually), but she’s not just some Mary Sue character who has people falling at her feet left, right and centre. Actually, she’s not nearly as in control as she thinks she is, and the way Ian McEwan manipulates her without you even realising it is really quite cunning. It must take a great deal of skill to write a book that’s so quietly crafty, and it really did give me a little thrill of delight to realise that I’d been tricked all along. It even made me want to start reading it all over again in a search for any clues about what was really going on, but I managed to resist. I always like to be fooled by a book, and I think spotting the signs would take some of that enjoyment away. If you’re intrigued to know a bit more after reading Sweet Tooth, I would also recommend this podcast of Ian McEwan talking to The Guardian Book Club about his writing of the novel, how he went about it and some of the themes and events it covered. You can listen to it here, but I would try and hold off until after finishing the book, as it’d be a shame to ruin such a crafty ending.