Rating: 3 Stars
The literary novelist labors under certain constraints. Like his less ambitious colleagues, he too has to hook his readers and reel them in. Unlike them however, he has self-imposed standards regarding plot, style, and technique. It’s easy to give in to authorial conceit and undermine the story’s integrity by trying too hard to be a clever boy.
Speaking of clever, the heroine of ‘Sweet Tooth’, Serena Frome is presented as a very bright young woman of the 70s. Having enjoyed an idyllic childhood and seen as being gifted in Math and Language, she is propelled by her mother to abandon her true love, English, to pursue the higher study of Math. At the university, she discovers herself to be relatively mediocre at the subject, but enjoys student life otherwise – dabbling in a little writing on the side, trying on various intellectual fashions for size, and, meandering through many desultory affairs. Thanks to the mentoring of an older lover she finds herself recruited by MI5 at the height of the Cold War.
Having stumbled into an accidental career, this inexperienced novice manages to give an impression of competence to supervisors who should have known better. Serena is assigned to a project code-named ‘Sweet Tooth’ and starts running her own agent – Tom Haley, an up and coming writer. Her relationship with him proves to be disastrous, but for whom exactly is a question answered only at the end, and I do mean the very end.
Electing to make the protagonist female is not a good option when there’s a strong strain of misogyny underlying the novel. For someone who is allegedly intelligent, Serena evinces no signs of curiosity, insight, or independent thought. By her own admission she is no rebel, being obedient and submissive; especially when there’s a man in her life that she’s eager to please, which is almost a constant. Moving on beyond the hollow characterization, descriptions of the British Secret Service’s intricate workings are less than riveting. They read like inner office memos. As for the pace, I had to get half way through the book before I realized gloomily that the author was still fussing with the stage decorations – the story was yet to start.
Having got that off my chest, let me just add that Ian McEwan successfully had me hooked. The slow pace was irritating, but I still kept reading. Yes, partly it may have been sheer bloody-mindedness about never quitting on a book as long as there were signs of life, but I also wanted to find out what happened to this silly girl at the end. It didn’t hurt that McEwan’s prose is crisp, precise, and elegant. Perhaps, it also had something to do with the weirdly compelling short stories of the Tom Haley character. A good writer has a lot of the magician in him. I suppose I simply enjoyed what McEwan pulled out of his hat for the finale. Clever boy.