Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services.  The year is 1972, Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency.  The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere.

Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ which brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer.  First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man.  Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life?  And who is inventing whom?  To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.

I was very excited to begin Sweet Tooth as I have great respect for Ian McEwan as a writer, having greatly enjoyed Atonement (*sob*), Solar and Enduring Love.  I was especially intrigued as I knew it had been discussed as a mixture of literary fiction with the spy thriller genre, which I love.

I can confirm that Sweet Tooth doesn’t disappoint.  Serena’s journey from slightly awkward teen to member of the British secret service, via a not-completely-satisfactory degree and affair at Cambridge, was fascinating.  I love reading stories set in places I’ve visited myself, so I found the passages set in and around Cambridge, and in London, particularly enjoyable – McEwan really captures the setting expertly without spending more than a few sentences on it.  He saves his words for his intricately woven plot.

Despite being described to me as a spy thriller, Sweet Tooth moves at a leisurely pace.  McEwan doesn’t hurry us, and spends plenty of time on Serena’s time at university and her affair with a lecturer, as, without that, we wouldn’t fully appreciate the later sections where he moves into the echelons of the secret service.  I really enjoyed this more literary take on the genre – it’s a refreshing change from the conventions of tiny chapters and cliffhangers.

I really enjoyed the way that the era was evoked; the petering out of the Cold War, the strikes,the gradual modernisation of London, and of espionage. And of course, it’s a book about books.  I love a book about books.

The only thing that didn’t win me over completely Serena herself.  At times, I found her rather cold.  I was totally convinced by the character and at times found myself getting quite cross with the way she talks about her ‘fat friend’, in a way that I hope most women wouldn’t.  I know that she’s supposed to be a bit spiky and awkward but I found it a bit tasteless to include those comments.  As a reader, I find it hard to enjoy a book if I don’t fully sympathise with the main character.  As a result, while I’d definitely recommend Sweet Tooth to others, I’m not sure I’d reread it myself.

Kate Neilan