English writer Ian McEwan has 15 books to his credit and has won all the major awards for literature in Great Britain; most notably the Man Booker Prize for Atonement. Sweet Tooth was published last year and is now out in paperback. As a novel in a vein different from McEwan’s other books, it doesn’t disappoint. I guess it’s a spy novel, but not in the usual sense.
The year is 1972 and the Cold War is still going on when a young Cambridge graduate, Serena Frome, joins England’s legendary intelligence agency MI5. She follows in the tradition of women who were smart math majors recruited as code breakers during World War II. However, Frome prefers literature to math and arrives at the secretive agency with a bit of a checkered past even though she’s the daughter of an Anglican bishop.
A compulsive reader of novels, she’s the perfect candidate to work with MI5’s program aimed at manipulating the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named Sweet Tooth.
She infiltrates the literary circle of a promising young writer and becomes personally involved with him. At first she loves his stories; then she begins to love the man. Her room is searched; she’s sometimes followed; and friends aren’t always who she thinks they are. She learns the hard lesson of rule number one of espionage: trust no one. Along the way Frome also learns the shocking truth about her older professor/mentor/lover who was responsible for getting her into MI5, a truth that puts her under suspicion.
This book is seductive and well written — as we always expect of McEwan. The Boston Globe describes it as “Jane Austen meets John Le Carre’ meets John Barth.” McEwan is called “a thinking person’s bestseller writer, whose intelligent, tightly plotted novels, narrated in careful prose, address the pressing social and political issues of our days” by the San Francisco Chronicle.
I first became aware of McEwan a long time ago while studying contemporary English literature in London. He was a new young writer bringing a fresh approach to the English novel. It’s been a pleasure to follow his success and read his works through the years.