‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan tells the story of a young woman called Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) who is recruited by MI5 after she finishes studying at Cambridge University in the early 1970s. She is assigned to an operation named Sweet Tooth in which a cultural foundation is set up to offer financial assistance to writers who speak out against communism. However, her romantic relationship with one of the young writers involved in the project, Tom Haley, starts to complicate things.
Labelled by many as a spy novel, I had expected ‘Sweet Tooth’ to be more about the world of espionage than it actually is. Instead, it is about the kind of deception usually found in personal relationships which is what the story focuses on rather than the politics of the Cold War. It is not a fast-paced thriller. In fact, the plot unravels quite slowly throughout with the early chapters covering Serena’s early life and studies at Cambridge and the story doesn’t really get going until about half way through. However, the ending is very satisfying and I enjoyed the build-up to it.
The main part of the story is about Tom Haley’s life as a young writer which Ian McEwan admitted is based on the early years of his own career during the 1970s. I enjoyed the “writing about writing” element of the story more than I thought I would. Normally, I would expect that kind of thing to be tedious or self-indulgent but I think McEwan managed to make this aspect genuinely interesting. While I didn’t find the actual writing in ‘Sweet Tooth’ to be as rich and elaborate as it is in some of McEwan’s other novels, I still think he is a very sly writer. In particular, Serena is a difficult character to figure out. I found her to be neither particularly likeable or unlikeable which made it hard to decide how much to trust her account of events.
I have heard some quite mixed reviews of ‘Sweet Tooth’ but personally, I really enjoyed it. I definitely preferred it to McEwan’s previous effort, ‘Solar’, which I thought was a bit hit-and-miss, mostly because of his misguided attempts at injecting deliberate humour into the story. Having now read and enjoyed ‘Sweet Tooth’, I will investigate one of McEwan’s earlier spy novels,’The Innocent’, at some point.