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Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape

Pages: 336 Rs. 550

Literary espionage and the return of the femme fatale

Ian McEwan’s latest novel is a perfectly controlled conspiracy tale, occasionally delving into metafiction and the fallacy of trying to ‘figure out’ a writer via his works, says Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat  23rd Sep 2012

Ian McEwan

or a book that revels in exploring the invention of the self, McEwan couldn't have chosen a better setting – the murky world of the MI5, where identities are discarded and shelved like wrinkled old suits. This in an era when Britain, plundered by low national self-esteem, is caught in the death throes of the Cold War and the hungry, violent beginnings of IRA terrorism.

This isn't the first time McEwan has forayed into John Le Carré territory. The Innocent, published in 1998, is set in sombre 1950s Berlin and also revolves around a seemingly doomed love affair. Yet he carefully crafts Sweet Tooth into something more than a tangled web of political intrigue and secret missions. It narrates, in first person, the life of Serena Frome ("rhymes with plume"), the blond, "rather gorgeous" daughter of a loving yet distant Anglican Bishop and an ambitious, though housework-bound, mother. It's a tale told in retrospect, of the time when she attends Cambridge to study math, in accordance with her mother's wishes – it was her "duty as a woman" to grapple with numbers - when instead she'd have liked a degree in English to feed her voracious love of paperback novels.

A chance encounter with a boyfriend's tutor leads to an intense summer fling – hidden away in a cottage in the woods where Serena, against her knowledge, is groomed for an 'interview' in London. Before long, she finds herself ensconced in a grimy office, slaving away for the MI5. This is the 1970s, and the world she inhabits, both within and without the work place, is rife with gender bias and discrimination.  Serena's existence is, for a while, tepid and routine, with a foray or two into romantic entanglement with her colleague Max. She takes solace in her small bedsit, sprucing it up with a reading lamp and an armchair, to better be able to lose herself in books. She is a wild and eager reader, confidently outlining what she likes to encounter in fiction – "I wasn't impressed by those writers who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life."

The conflict begins when Serena is given a mission – "Sweet Tooth" – to enlist the trust and literary output of a young, struggling author named Tom Haley (who suspiciously resembles a young McEwan). She reads his short stories, disturbing, distorted, peopled with strange, lonely characters, and travels to Sussex to meet him. Sooner, rather than later, they become the tenderest of lovers and McEwan, skilled at depicting the quiet, dependent lives of couples, takes visible joy in shaping their relationship for his readers. The conflict at the heart of the matter, however, festers like a sore - should she tell Tom who she really is and risk losing him and her job?

McEwan constantly plays with the expectations of his readers until the final surprising denouncement, which could leave you – depending on what kind of reader you are – wholly in awe or wholly disappointed.

hese plot markers, however, are important only in that they function to prop a larger metafictional twist that McEwan explores in the novel. He was recently quoted as saying "All novels are spy novels as all writers are spies" and Sweet Tooth is a smooth conflation of the two – the art of invention and the craft of writing.  In here, between the liberal literary references, from Jane Austen to Doris Lessing, lies the Shakespearean plot device of a 'play within a play.' The book is littered with Tom Haley's short stories, and the outline of his award-winning (yet, to Serena's dismay, anti-capitalist) novel that seems to preempt Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic The Road. McEwan constantly plays with the expectations of his readers until the final surprising denouncement, which could leave you – depending on what kind of reader you are – wholly in awe or wholly disappointed. Despite being a long-beloved notion, there is no way, he seems to say, of knowing the mind of the author after reading his books. Here, for example, he might be ironically denouncing the postmodern penchant of some writers to, destroy the fourth wall so to speak, and "infiltrate their own pages". On the other, he could be wittily, willfully celebrating the move.

Sweet Tooth is undeniably smoothly contrived. At the end, there is a reason why all the tales within the tale fit into place, like a beautiful, intricate matroshka doll, and you think back on the plot as an enlightened jigsaw player.  There are other spy stories that similarly interweave art and espionage, albeit in a different medium – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's movie The Lives of Others, for example – yet here art is transformative. In Sweet Tooth it is a finely crafted, razor-edge tool that carefully carves out your heart.

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