“Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, 304 pages, $26.95)
Best known for his novels “Atonement,” which was made into a popular film, and “Amsterdam,” which won the Man Booker Prize, McEwan is a sure-handed author who writes dazzling prose, creates intricate, engaging plots and likes to play with genres.
His new novel, “Sweet Tooth,” is ostensibly a spy novel and a love story, but it’s really a metafiction – fiction about writing fiction.
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It tells the story of Serena Frome, a clever and pretty daughter of an Anglican bishop who is recruited by a Cambridge professor to work for the British security service.
She leaves Cambridge in 1972 and begins working for MI-5.
McEwan captures well this period in Great Britain, which faced economic disaster, terrorism from the IRA, a miners strike, an oil shortage and, of course, the Cold War. He writes: “Children were sent home because there was no heating in their schools, streetlights were turned off to save energy, there was wild talk of everyone working a three-day week because of electricity shortages.”
Although Serena studied math at college, she is a voracious reader of novels. This aptitude leads to her being assigned to “Sweet Tooth,” a secret mission to recruit writers whose point of view is anti-Soviet. The plan is to offer them a generous stipend from a certain foundation – not divulging its connection to MI-5 – to free them to write what they wish.
This brings Serena into contact with Tom Haley, a young writer who has published only some short stories and essays. Serena loves his stories, and later she falls in love with him, and he with her.
She lives with the tension of not being able to divulge her undercover life. Can she maintain this? And what if Tom’s writing does not agree with what MI-5 wants him to say?
Another tension between Serena and Tom is how they approach fiction. He is drawn to those writers “who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life.” She, on the other hand, is an empiricist and likes her fiction straightforward, without all this needless speculation.
One of the pleasures of “Sweet Tooth” is how McEwan employs metafiction on several levels. He even introduces autobiographical elements into the story and uses the names of actual people. There are several parallels between him and Tom.
McEwan is more than a trickster; he’s a fine prose writer. He shows the sexism of MI-5 in how the women workers responded to their superiors: “There was always a trace of an apology in our style, a polite impulse to defer, especially when one of the senior officers, one of the ex-colonial types, came through our crepuscular room.”
“Sweet Tooth” may not be on the level of “Atonement” or “Amsterdam,” but it is an enjoyable read, whether or not one is drawn to metafiction. Even an empiricist reader like Serena can like this one.