The Short Version: It’s 1972 and the Cold War is in full swing. England is still reeling from the discovery of the Cambridge 5 almost twenty years earlier. New plans are put in place by MI5 to encourage artists to make pro-Western materials – and new recruit Serena Frome is tapped to run author Tom Haley. But as she gets closer to Haley, she must keep truth and lie separate even as the world pushes her to come clean…
The Review: A short while ago, The New Yorker launched a new podcast called “The Author’s Voice”. It kicked off with an Ian McEwan short story, entitled “My Purple-Scented Novel” – I encourage you to go have a listen, both because it’s a great story and because McEwan is a delightful reader. That plummy, winking British accent of his is a perfect fit – and it truly revealed, to me, the author’s “voice” in ways I’d never expected, for when I picked up Sweet Tooth, it was all I could hear in my head.
Not to say that this was an unhappy development, not necessarily anyway. McEwan’s voice, as I’ve just said, is delightful and I felt from the very first moment like I was in the hands of a master storyteller, as I always do when I pick up a McEwan novel. The thing is, this novel is purportedly from the point of view of a woman. Perhaps it was just having listened to McEwan and so being carefully attuned to his prose, but something felt off about the novel from the very start. Or it’s not that anything was off insomuch as I felt unsteady in the world of the novel, which seemed fitting for a spy novel. I’ll return to this at the end, with some SPOILERS in tow.
Regardless of the initial instability, I quickly slipped under the thrall of the novel and could tell that McEwan was having a blast emulating some of the writers who he no doubt grew up reading – namely Ian Fleming and John le Carré. There are elements of both of those writers in the prose and in the story itself and I got the sense that McEwan was both occasionally allowing himself some attempts pastiche and also consciously tipping his hat to those who inspired him by showing how those inspirations gave birth to his own style. Serena Frome, our main character, is of predictable construction for a 70s English spy novel – strong-willed, beautiful, sexually liberated, and bumping up against that glass ceiling that’s starting to crack while realizing that she is probably not the one to break on through. And the MI5 of this novel fits right into the MI5 of both le Carré’s great Smiley novels and the organization revealed in A Spy Among Friends, the latter of which also allowed me to grin and shout “I got that one!” when Serena’s boss mentions Philby and the Cambridge Four (Cairncross having not yet become public knowledge).
But it’s Tom Haley who is the most interesting creation of McEwan’s novel. He doesn’t show up until almost a third of the way through the novel – and, just to say, that pace is at times a little too leisurely, especially in the early going. (I laughed out loud when, over 80 pages in, a paragraph included an actual “so here’s where the story really begins.”) But once Haley shows up and Sweet Tooth is underway, things really get cooking. The idea behind the operation was to expand and reconsider the IRD for internal purposes; that is, to give English writers and artists some shady funding in the hopes that they’ll produce strident anti-Communist work that doesn’t quite come across as propaganda. There’s quite a bit of conversation about how Orwell’s twin masterpieces of 1984 and Animal Farm were given perhaps not-so-subtle encouragement from the government and how a similar success on English shores in the 70s might do some good in the efforts against the Russkies. Haley is one of five or so writers chosen, but he’s the only one whose name we know – although a few of McEwan’s friends are mentioned or implied, including “Kingsley Amis’ son”.
And suddenly, it begins to become clear: Haley is Ian McEwan. The short stories that are mentioned in the novel are versions of stories that McEwan himself wrote as a younger man, in the 1970s. Even his look and his behavior seem to fit with what we know of McEwan, even just from his writing. Sure, there’s a bit of wishful thinking to it all – he’s a little more charming, a little more righteous than any actual person could be. But I had an inkling, perhaps about 5/8ths of the way through the novel, that this sense of Haley-as-McEwan and the oddity of voice I’d noticed right from the top of the book might somehow be connected. McEwan is, of course, far too talented of a writer to not indulge in some game-playing when the time is right. And the games of the last chapter are absolutely delightful. Even my own prediction, proved right, was then expounded upon in a way that seemed to say, “if you think you figured it out reader, that’s okay – I thought you might. Now here’s this.”
Maybe you can tell, I’ve decided not to spoil it for you. All the more fun this way.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I’d call this great vacation reading. McEwan is, as ever, a masterful writer and storyteller – and he’s writing not only a spy thriller homage here but a love letter to the power of storytelling and writing. I might’ve liked the pace to be a little more even and I felt at times like the 70s weren’t quite as viscerally conjured as the silly cover might’ve implied – but he’s delivered a great look at sexual politics, about the ownership of stories, and he even pulls off a truly dazzling metafictional trick that almost encourages the reader to flip the book over and start again from the top with new understanding. Plus, it’s not every day an author convinces you (in their fiction) of the possibility of their real life being far more interesting than anybody ever let on…