Young Cambridge maths graduate Serena Frome is recruited to MI-5 after an affair with a history professor. Living frugally on the poor wages of a very lowly civil servant, she spends her free time reading and thinking about books. It's 1972. Soon Serena is recruited to a project code-named Sweet Tooth, in which large sums of money are handed over, their origins well-concealed, to intellectuals on the non-communist left to bolster the standing of the United States as a reasonable alternative to communism.
Asked to verify the suitability for the project of Tom Haley, a young writer at the University of Sussex, Serena soon becomes embroiled in attraction and intrigue. An exciting affair quickly becomes a more serious relationship, but Serena still has to conceal her real job from Tom. For a while, they live the high life on the grant money, but sooner or later the whole story has to come out.
Thematically, Sweet Tooth might appear to have a lot in common with Ian McEwan's The Innocent, in which a young technical engineer is sent to 1950s Berlin as part of a big signal-interception project. It shares the Cold War element; the protagonist's underestimation of the seriousness of spying and intrigue; the Christmas return to home, parents and a stuffy, unchanging world; the big love affair with someone on the "other" side that might or might not jeopardize the project.
But Sweet Tooth – which has been misleadingly hyped as a thriller – is a different kind of work altogether. It's McEwan's version of metafiction, his exploration of what it could mean to write a postmodern-realist novel for a wide (mainstream and literary) readership. It's also rather biographical. Like the novel's author Tom Haley, McEwan studied at Sussex before launching himself in the literary world. Haley's short stories are drawn from McEwan's own repertoire, which strengthens the links between this book and If On a Winter's Night a Traveler.
McEwan is not Italo Calvino, of course, nor does he want to be, but this novel could be seen as his way of reaching beyond the easy labels without abandoning the style his readers love. He's intelligent, has popular and literary appeal, manages credibly and interestingly to include politics in his writing, and has a gift for making an enormous range of readers feel as though he is writing about them, about their own particular life of the mind. He observes the tiny tragedies of growing up and growing old with humour and insight.
And who could fail to be impressed by his great, sweeping openings, the grand settings, the incisive character portraits, the promise for the reader of finding a mirror in his protagonists, no matter how unlikely?
But although McEwan's powers as a writer are not in doubt, his powers as a structurally satisfying novelist might be. Almost all the novels have some big crisis, often a shocking departure from quotidian realism, but they often feel derailed by the force of the events. It's puzzling that a writer with such a gift for understanding the human mind should sabotage the most wonderful character novels by suddenly launching an assault of implausibility. Or is it admirable that a writer with a gift that could lead to easy crowd-pleasers likes to complicate his works by including some rough edges on which a general reader can refine his or her literary sensibilities?
In Sweet Tooth, McEwan explores these questions by incorporating theoretical debates about his own work. Serena admires Haley's work, but when it departs from social documentary she feels betrayed. She recognizes that she is "the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form." McEwan must be frustrated that critics often praise and then cut him down for precisely his ability to make accessible the thing that literary fiction does best. Sweet Tooth is, by and large, the kind of novel that Serena wants, but it's also more than that. It's hard to decide whether the book takes a few gentle pokes at critics, at readers or at McEwan himself (who, in a recent Financial Times interview, compared being considered a great British novelist to being a one-man Marks & Spencer). It's this second-guessing of the overtly social-realist narrative that keeps Sweet Tooth interesting. It's not experimental, with any of the positives or negatives that entails, but it's not a novel to dismiss as "just" anything.
McEwan fans won't be disappointed by Sweet Tooth, and newcomers to the author will be meeting him at the top of his game. Even the best of novels are flawed, and part of the fun with a great writer is to dissect those flaws. McEwan's work is like a cocktail: Cleverly designed to slip down without trouble, but with all the kick of a more serious drink.
C. Sutcliffe writes about books at www.slightlybookist.wordpress.com.