Page-turner thrillers of all stripes trade on nimbly accelerating plot mechanics and narrative sleights-of-hand that highlight the gap between what eventually transpires and what readers (and, often, the intrepid hero) initially believe or anticipate.
At the onset, Sweet Tooth’s essence appears to be literary thriller. Adept at the genre, Ian McEwan opens à la John Banville in The Untouchable, with a wily operative recalling a scandalous distant past, though with notable differences: the narrator is female; her bit role in minor Cold War machinations was short-lived; and we see (and, over the novel’s twenty-two chapters, learn) virtually nothing of her circumstances after 1973.
That beginning is engrossing because it’s so promissory. Not only does the supposed narrator (“beautiful and clever” Serena Frome) look back at an exotic period in politically tense London right after she graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Mathematics, but, better still, with words and phrases like “undoing,” “secret mission,” “ruined,” and “disgraced” appearing in the first paragraph and “MI5,” “recruiting,” “selfless cruelty,” “a journey with no hope of return” closing off the chapter, we’re enticed with the murky color scheme and sullied motivations popularized again last year with Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 bestseller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A confession mapping the road to ruin and an outsider insider’s observations of a storied and exclusive old boys’ network: what’s not to like?
Economical (“I won’t waste much time on my childhood and teenage years,” Serena says) yet adroit, McEwan’s story engrosses instantly. Possessing a “freak of nature” talent for numbers and “an empty mind, ripe for takeover,” young Serena’s naiveté and curiosity seemingly stand in conflict with the ruin and disgrace she’ll either experience or eventually cause. A lover of reading—of a kind: she scans pages for mere seconds, skips themes and descriptions, and seeks female characters she can believe in and who are usually falling in and out of love—with a dilettante’s social consciousness, the apparent difference between wizened, regretful Serena and her English rose youth likewise draws us in.
Serena’s student journalism and a romantic tie to an older student eventually lead to an affair with a married history professor (who, at 54, “had a yellowish look, like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes”). His tutoring—wine, food, books, politics—provides her with surface worldliness. Before the affair ends a few months later in a classic McEwan scene of acrimony, he’s connected this undergraduate to MI5 in London. Seeking independence and with nothing else on offer, Serena’s soon “a clerical officer of the lowest grade.”
These initial scenes in the file catacombs of MI5 are terrific. Observant and sharp as a new employee and narrator, Serena’s impression of the office environment and its sexual politics (she becomes briefly involved with Max Greatorex, a superior) and strictly maintained hierarchies enables us to see that literary mainstay with fresh eyes. And, at this point, she’s the gender underdog we root for. (McEwan has fun too: excited about her first spy-world assignment, Serena and an outspoken, cynical colleague named Shirley Shilling find themselves on a clean-up mission—literally: with vacuum and broom—for an operation that went down in a safe house). All the while, background noise—IRA bombings, the miners’ strike, unstable government, and mandatory lectures by higher ups with titles like “Economic Anarchy, Civic Unrest”—hints (a reader might think) of intrigue and scandal to come.
During this period, McEwan reminds us, Serena reads “three or four books a week,” favoring “undemanding social documentary” while remaining averse to deviations from the realist fiction in which she can find versions of herself: “So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art,” she states, “no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent.”
With the arrival of an ostensibly important mission, codename Sweet Tooth, Serena’s focus—and therefore the novel’s—shifts. Outlandish (though not in fact that far removed from MI5 history), the goal of Sweet Tooth is to cultivate and financially support young writers, the idea being their literature would serve the needs of the state and help maintain an anti-Communist status quo. In particular, she’s told about a young writer, one whose future output is expected to turn away from fashionable Left sentiments about the “decline of the West, or down with progress or any other modish pessimism,” and who might also be inclined toward political activism in the form of journalism or petition signing that would criticize the eastern bloc.
This man, Thomas Haley, has been pre-selected for Serena. A graduate in English from the University of Sussex (like McEwan) and current completing a doctorate in literature, Haley has written five short stories (that share striking similarities to McEwan’s earliest publications); from MI5’s point of view he needs an agent and a novel to establish his career.
Posing as a scout for a funding agency, Serena visits Haley at Sussex, entices him, and on the train back begins to read the first of his five stories (McEwan dedicates many pages to describing and quoting from these stories, in which betrayal and illusion feature prominently).
Sweet Tooth’s narration veers away from a strict focus on office politics, crisis-ridden England, and clashing world ideologies as Serena falls in love with Haley. With her help, he publishes a short dystopian novel—echoing McEwan’s story “Two Fragments” (itself a fragment of his unpublished dystopian novel)—that is nominated for a literary prize.
Between work and the novelty of being Haley’s muse/handmaiden, Serena recalls, the two made love often: “This time our priority, even more urgent, was to get back to the flat and make love,” she says at the beginning of one paragraph; and at the end: “At some point in the early evening he came back quietly into the bedroom, slipped in beside me and made love to me again. He was amazing.” As Serena grows besotted, the more facile and stereotypically feminine she appears. The attention to clothing, nail polish, and the romance temperature-taking pushes the story away from the political world that’s part and parcel with espionage (and raises not infrequent questions about the author’s motivations).
Until the game-changing final chapter, Serena’s storytelling dwells on the highs (re: “He was amazing”) and reveals the inevitable lows (re: “a journey with no hope of return”). As Haley feverishly writes another novel, a clever journalist makes connections and suddenly Sweet Tooth’s feasibility becomes questionable.
In one of her asides about her literary tastes back in the ‘70s, Serena mentions Iris Murdoch in passing. She’d consider Murdoch’s 1973 novel, The Black Prince, with its strata of unreliable narrators a perfect example of the “tricksy” experimental fiction she’d lay aside in a heartbeat. With its incessant sleights of hand, The Black Prince dares readers to make sense of (or find truth in) a series of partial truths and outright lies told by self-serving characters. With Sweet Tooth, the final chapter does not achieve the same effect. McEwan’s last chapter trick undermines the preceding story’s veracity, yes, but instead of adding depth or complexity the purpose seems arbitrary and the effect largely trivial.