Expectations are curious creatures; sometimes they are too weighty and hinder the book’s or film’s imaginative flight. I’ve always looked forward to an Ian McEwan novel. I loved his Austenite homage in Atonement, the reflective stock-taking in Saturday and the inventiveness of Amsterdam. In the main, I am deaf to accusations that he writes middle-brow fiction with the occasional postmodern or metafictional awareness for the chattering classes. Fiction is a broad enough church to encompass all, and life is too short for pleasure not to be taken wherever one finds it. I took a paperback of Sweet Tooth with me on holiday and settled down in expectation.
Set in the 1970s, Sweet Tooth is presented in the first person by the novel’s central character, Serena Frome. A Cambridge graduate with a third in mathematics but who, in different circumstances, might have taken a better degree in English and “learned how to read”, Frome was encouraged by her “feminist” mother to not waste her educational opportunities. Flights of fancy must make way for real science. (As the academic year begins, such jibes about an English degree must bring on smiles: “My mother told me she would never forgive me and she would never forgive herself if I went off to read English and became no more than a slightly better educated housewife.”) But Frome’s love of reading is put to good use. Recruited into MI5 by a Cambridge academic, she participates in “Sweet Tooth”, the code name for the intelligent services’ counter-Communist campaign to covertly fund writers whose political positions are in line with the MI5 cause. Frome later recruits and acts as a minder to a young writer and academic but becomes romantically involved with her charge; agonising over whether to confess her cover, her hand is forced when she is outed by the press. However, in a twist that can’t be divulged without giving the game away, the deceivers and the duped are not always who they seem to be.
Despite its plot, Sweet Tooth is not a spy novel as such but a pastiche of one, enabling McEwan to comment on writing and deception, as well as to play with some of the key episodes in the espionage and culture wars of the Cold War, notably, the uncovering of CIA backing for Stephen Spender’s literary magazine, Encounter, and also the rooting out of the very English “Cambridge Five” spies. Sweet Tooth’s central concerns coalesce around reading and writing: how we read novels; how much life informs the book; the criss-crossing of the real and the fictive; the values we attach to literary genres. Sly commentaries to this effect pepper the text; for example, Frome’s early preferences for “naive realism” as opposed to postmodern trickery, her declarations that “only writers… were ever in danger of confusing the two” and that writers get “paid” to “give plausibility to whatever they made up”. The novel’s denouement is, of course, a crafty rejoinder to such assertions. Fiction shares with spying the fine arts of subterfuge and deception; as Frome’s colleague remarks, “In this work, the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred…. You imagine things – and you can make them come true.”
Can Sweet Tooth bear the burden of such an elaborate conceit? To my mind, the novel flattens out the spy-story and its array of characters; the lack of depth detracts from the everyday pleasures of “naive realism”… yet such imaginative foreplay is necessary for McEwan’s ruse to work. Do we care about Frome and her lovers? Not very much. Sweet Tooth is not an undiverting read but the trick of Escher’s drawing hands was to make them so realistic that the impossibility of the image (and irony of their crafting) is experienced as a pleasurable jolt. This didn’t happen. McEwan does, of course, mount his own critical defence in those wily asides. However, one cannot judge a book by its cover or author.