Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
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really liked it


I could see someone writing a three-star review of McEwan's latest novel almost as easily as a five-star one. (view spoiler) But not I. For the moment the book arrived and I read the first paragraph, I breathed a huge sigh of pleasure, set aside the book I was already on, and set down to enjoy this one. And enjoy it I did, not least because it took me back to my own country and almost my own generation, and the heroine (Serena Frome, to rhyme with "plume," a bishop's daughter, mediocre mathematician, and avid reader) might easily have been the kind of girl I knew at Cambridge. Only luckier in love than I; a fairly active social life culminates in an affair with an older don who grooms her for the security services, and before we know it, she has been accepted as a very junior clerk in MI5. Having recently been disappointed by Simon Mawer's Trapeze, about a similarly sheltered girl recruited as a spy, I was deeply pleased that McEwan seemed to be doing it right.

But this is 1970 or so, the waning years of the Cold War, not WW2, and the mission that Serena is eventually given is cultural rather than military. She is to recruit a promising young writer named Tom Healy whose political views may make him a useful ally in the propaganda battle against the Soviets. I am sure one could raise all sorts of objections to this rather flimsy plot, but the moral focus of the novel soon shifts to the personal rather than the political level, as Serena falls in love with Tom, despite her own misgivings about having to lie to him.

So we have a political novel (with a painfully accurate portrait of Britain in one of its darkest postwar periods) as an underlay to an somewhat more interesting one about people and their feelings, the roles they play, and the lies they tell. But there is an even more significant layer laid on top of that: this is a novel about writers and the writing process, and in the end this will be the dominant theme. I must admit to some disappointment when I realized this; surely a writer has better subjects than the lint in his own navel? But the subject alone need not spell failure; instead of following the self-centeredness of Howard Jacobson's recent Zoo Time, might McEwan not reach the brilliance of Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter ?

And to a large extent he does. Serena reads several wonderfully inventive stories by Tom Healy which, even in compressed form, are worth the price of the book alone. The writer is clearly a genius, and so even more clearly is the writer behind the writer, McEwan himself. Readers familiar with his other work will note many echoes here of the author's previous novels. For McEwan is writing about the alchemy of writing itself, and the way an author must steal from life and even betray it in order to turn it into art. In the end, he will borrow a device from yet another of his novels, and there will be many who criticize him for it. But I found the ending intriguing and warmly satisfying. I did not mind sacrificing the logic of the spy story, or even the reality of some of the characters, if what I gained was the greater authenticity of a master of his craft exploring the magic of his own mastery.
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Reading Progress

September 24, 2012 – Started Reading
September 26, 2012 – Finished Reading
August 14, 2016 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Will Ansbacher A nicely insightful review Roger - McEwan certainly is the master of inventiveness. But I thought that Tom's stories would not have made anyone fall in love with their author, even though they had originally been crafted by the master himself!

Roger Brunyate It has been almost four years since I read this, Will, so my memory is partial at best. Reading another review today (from Holly), I realize there is probably a lot more going on here in the metafictional sense than I originally recognized. R.

message 3: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope I have read several of McEwan's novels, but not yet this one. I enjoyed your account of how you felt immediately engrossed as soon as you started it, and I am curious about the alchemy of writing itself.. I hope to get to this one soon.

Roger Brunyate Kalliope, I['d advice you to look at Holly's review first, plus the one she links in her reply to me, There are other ways of looking at this one, and probably better McEwans for you to read. R,

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