Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
The stultifying bureaucratic world of MI5 in the 1970s is where Ian McEwan sets his most recent novel. Much of the earlier part of the book deals with the way clever young graduates are recruited and placed in mundane jobs, while cultural campaigns against communism are fought by “sponsoring” intellectuals to write anti-communist articles and novels. The craft of fiction writing itself gets a lot of attention, as do the personal and political wranglings within MI5. But it’s really only when the secret agent Serena Frome falls in love with a writer she has recruited that the plot sharpens up. Then we are drawn into the personal compromises imposed by life as a spy, and see what happens when a recruited intellectual takes a dystopian view of capitalism rather than communism. Sweet Tooth is not as engaging as earlier McEwan novels, such as Amsterdam (1999) and Saturday (2005), but his fans will still be satisfied by his brilliant capacity to describe his characters’ interior lives in parallel with their lived experiences. The final twist of this tale redeems the earlier monotony that surely must have been a part of soft cold-war espionage in Britain.