Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

The first thing that strikes you is that McEwan is writing in the first person, as a woman. I used to have a prejudice against this: a writer writing as another gender, but I called myself out and tried it myself. Now, it doesn’t bother me; in fact, it’s one of the things I like about this book. Generally speaking, I believe that people are more alike than not. Gender, sexuality, and up-bringing affect us in profound ways, but also don’t affect us at all. We all experience and react to the range of human emotions and consequent actions: a young homosexual female bus-driver and an old straight rich male banker could react to jealousy, a home-invasion, or a heart attack in exactly the same way. I don’t need to research the work space and tasks of an astronaut when I’m writing about her marriage breakdown, just like I don’t need to study aerodynamics to jump a puddle.

Writing in the third person is the more common format. The third person allows the writer to create a narrator that is god-like, knowing everything about everyone, past present and future. Writing in the first person gives the writer access only to what the protagonist experiences; but this can be useful to the writer who may not want the protagonist to know everything. Hold that thought.

I’ve read almost all of McEwan – I say almost¬†because as yet I haven’t been able to get past page 3 of On Chesil Beach (2007): I find the situation the young couple are in so embarrassing. I must get over it, I know; and I will, just not yet. It’s a tribute to McEwan’s craft that it effected me so strongly.

McEwan’s early work, up until the turn of this century, were generally dark tales with something black, dangerous, or hellish at the heart of each new novel. He became known as Ian MaCabre. However since the turn of the century his style has changed although he still likes to play with the narrative form; as he did with Atonement¬†(2001) – one of his best – by creating a fake ending which allowed the title to be so appropriate.

But, back to Sweet Tooth (2012) set in 1972: Serena Frome (as in “plume”) is a young, pretty, blonde who isn’t very picky about her sexual partners. In fact, she admits her hunger for approval but not her hunger for affection. She is recruited into M15 by an older lover who then abandons her for reasons she, and the reader, only find out about much later. She is placed in a lowly paid clerical job in a lowly department; with a 3rd mathematics degree from Cambridge but an enthusiastic love and ever-growing interest in literature, especially fiction. That is why she is given the job of signing up a new, intelligent, and promising writer – will he win a prestigious prize? – named Tom Haley, for a pension, seemingly from a creative arts foundation, but really as a way for the government to have some control over the culture of the society it governs; not control really but making sure they foster the right creative minds. This interesting idea is at the core of the book. It also leads to some very informative and rewarding discussion of the relationship between writer and reader. She prepares for her undercover work by reading three of his short stories and these stories aren’t presented as complete works by Tom Haley, although I wonder if McEwan actually wrote them out in full; but Serena tells us about them, giving the reader insight into what they tell her about the man she will soon meet.

Serena’s dilemma is how much does she tell Tom. This becomes critical when she falls in love with him, and he with her. As the romance deepens so does her duplicity. The reader can feel the doom gathering as events conspire against her – and then the media get hold of it: headline “HALEY’S SEXY SPY”; and it’s possible that you will have a choice of what you may think will happen. She of course calls him, visits him, but he is gone; nowhere in sight. No matter what you may think will happen when she finds him, I can safely guarantee you will be wrong. Here is an ending like no other, although in retrospect, it’s very McEwan. Only when you read the last page, the last line, do you really understand what happened. Oh, please don’t be tempted to look.

There are no spoilers here; but I will say that the success of the plot lies in the fact that Serena, and you the reader are oblivious to a very important piece of information and it’s crucial that it not be revealed. It’s only when it is that you realise that McEwan really had no choice: it had to be written in the first person.

For lovers of McEwan, this is a gem. So much better than his latest Nutshell (2016); such a disappointment.

You can find the novel, in various formats, here.

The Paris Review’s interview with Ian McEwan – “The Art of Fiction No. 173” – from 2002 you can find here.