This is writing that is so clever and accomplished, it makes much else seem incompetent. Sweet Tooth isn’t that novel you will fall totally in love with and cherish. It’s too smart and wry for that. But it is quietly dazzling.
It’s about a young beautiful woman who almost by accident joins the British spy service.
It’s the Cold War 1970s, and Serena is drafted into a project called Sweet Tooth, whereby the secret service’s MI5 basically bankrolls writers and publishers who oppose communism.
If you think this is far-fetched, well, of course, it happened here, with the journal Quadrant, which still, to this day, sees itself as a kind of Cold War warrior, a voice of conservatism amongst the rat-baggery leftism of the literati.
There are meetings described in Sweet Tooth that are terrible and funny. Because feminism was still in its mainstream infancy, Serena has to cope with patronising arrogance, and it’s brilliantly imagined by McEwan.
She’s sent out to offer a promising young writer a kind of no-strings-attached bursary, to encourage him to write more of his anti-communist essays and fiction that has the good guys winning.
When he writes a doomsday novel, MI5 is appalled. By this time, Serena has fallen in love with him, and it all seems to be heading for disaster.
Sweet Tooth is a romance, it’s a historical novel, and it’s a book about writing. It’s post-modernist in the sense that it is very aware of the hall of mirrors that writing can be.
Like McEwan’s lovely and devastating Atonement, it is also very big on writing responsibility, and how obsessive and dangerous a writer can be.
This seems like an unambitious book, compared, say with the Booker-Prize-winning Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.
It doesn’t need to strain at all, however, and that’s the pleasure of it.
No fancy shouting here, just a writer who knows all about creating a story to satisfy readers who don’t read to “switch off” but to “switch on”.
- Rosemary Sorensen