A middlebrow spy spoof stuffed with self-regard
FICTION: Sweet Tooth By Ian McEwan Jonathan Cape, 323pp. £13.99ESPIONAGE as portrayed in the movies is a dark and grimly glamorous business; the men are super-fit while the women invariably resemble sleek models shaped by hours in the gym. The real-life version is far more mundane, and the successful agent tends to be the least likely individual in the room.
Some spies, particularly the eastern-bloc variety as manufactured by Hollywood, are little more than assassins; ruthless, cunning, and monosyllabic. But the British spy is Oxbridge-educated, speaks rather well, knows his wine and may have sexual issues. He is presented as less a psychopath, more a smoothly assured civil servant possessed of a well-developed sense of irony – always useful when defining the point at which security becomes secrecy. Betrayal is a prerequisite, as are social skills. He or she must be plausible, as most people are seldom as stupid as they appear.
Ian McEwan might well have spent a moment considering stupidity as a communal affliction suffered by readers of fiction. Among the many hazards of being clever is a tendency to underestimate others. From the opening sentence of this glib beach read, marred by stagy dialogue and more holes than a string shopping bag, something fishy is afoot.
The ultra-brisk tone of the narrator Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”) never rings true, nor does the plot, tossed about as it is between the personal and the public, with odd bits of contentious McEwan polemic thrown in, such as his narrator’s reporting of a brigadier’s views of Bloody Sunday: “. . . and the net effect of killing 13 civilians on that day was to endear both wings of the IRA to the world. Money, arms and recruits were as rivers of honey in spate. Sentimental and ignorant Americans, many of Protestant rather than Catholic descent, were feeding the fires with their foolish dollars donated to the Republican cause through fundraisers like Noraid. Not until the United States had its own terrorist attacks would it begin to understand. To right the tragedy of Derry’s wasted lives, the Official IRA slaughtered five cleaning ladies, a gardener and a Catholic priest in Aldershot, while the Provisionals murdered mothers and children in Belfast’s Abercorn restaurant, some of them Catholics . . .”
Serena sets out to tell her story: “. . . almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover . . .” Put that way, it sounds almost exciting. But Serena’s “mission” is hardly dangerous, its only hazards being food and sex. The daughter of an Anglican bishop, she grew up a cathedral precinct. “My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them.” By the third paragraph of the novel her pomposity is confirmed and doubts as to her characterisation already established.
She recalls wanting to study English literature as she speed-read novels, skipping descriptive passages. But her mother had other ideas and insisted that Serena, who was good at maths, pursued that subject at university, with a view to “a proper career in science or engineering or economics”. Serena’s mother is a capable woman but barely fleshed out in a narrative of staggering superficiality.
McEwan’s previous novel, Solar (2010), an ambivalent comedy with a serious theme, global warming, attempted a lighter touch. It continued the more commercial approach first heralded in Saturday (2005), in which the brain-surgeon central character, defying all normal human behaviour, sets out to save a villain who has viciously humiliated his daughter. Far worse, though, was Enduring Love (1997). The slight morality tale Amsterdam managed to win the 1999 Booker prize. Yet McEwan began as a serious literary writer and has written several fine novels, including The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990), the daring Black Dogs (1992) and On Chesil Beach (2007).