I never know whether I’m going to love or hate a new novel by British literary giant Ian McEwan.
Some of my all-time favourite books are his: Amsterdam (1998), a euthanasia pact between a newspaper editor and a composer, Atonement (2001), a chilling tale of false accusations, and Saturday (2003), a post-9/11 portrait of a neurosurgeon.
Some of his other titles, however, have fallen flat. Nonetheless I was optimistic about McEwan’s latest novel, Sweet Tooth, which is billed as a cold-war spy thriller. This set-up seemed tailor-made for a writer known for his ability to create great characters and ratchet up tension.
In Sweet Tooth a youthful and beautiful blonde, Serena Frome, is recruited into Britain’s spy world. She doesn’t get there on her own merit, but rather because she is dating a handsome professor with espionage connections.
But things don’t progress quite like a fast-paced John le Carré novel. Instead, Serena is content to toil as a lowly clerk in MI5’s basement, working on nothing of particular interest or consequence. She has few friends, lives in a shabby bedsit and spends her free time speed-reading novels. One night, Serena imagines an author looking at her life as if she were a character in a book. Most readers would find her story rather dull and grey, she muses (cue a knowing wink from McEwan here).
Eventually, however, Serena is called up from the basement to work on an operation that will covertly fund anti-communist authors. As Serena is groomed to recruit a novelist, McEwan devises playful stories within stories, and ideas within ideas. I was worried at this point not about Serena’s safety, but for the story, which was on the verge of being overshadowed by an irritating show of cleverness.
I had no need to worry on either front. Serena and the novelist fall dangerously in love, and at the same time, McEwan rescues his story with a few twists, turning it into a masterful piece of writing.
Comments posted on various websites rated Sweet Tooth as everything from “stinker” to “sublime.” I was at odds with the strong reactions because for the first time after finishing a McEwan book, I didn’t have an immediate reaction of love or hate. It’s a book that has to sit for awhile before it can be fully appreciated.
McEwan has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times, winning it once. If Sweet Tooth’s surprisingly subtle but lingering after taste is recognized, I have no doubt that McEwan will be nominated yet again.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.