SWEET TOOTH FAILS TO SWEETEN – Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
a novel in one act, with its solitary climax
Serena Frome, a beautiful student of maths and an avid reader, has an affair with a college don at Cambridge University and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. It’s 1972. Britain is in crisis, facing a three day working week, energy supplies are low and the Cold War staggers on. Serena is given a role in Sweet Tooth, MI5’s cultural attack on communism. It sounds like a dream post: she has to pretend she works for a charitable organisation that wishes to promote young writers. Her charge is Tom Haley, a short story writer who teaches at Suffolk University. Serena promises Tom a life free of financial worries, in return for a novel, which MI5 hopes will be be Orwell-esque in its satirical attack on the Eastern Block.
We learn, in detail, about Tom’s short stories, which Serena loves. After meeting Tom, she rapidly falls in love with him too. Their courtship is gilded, glowing against the grey backdrop of economic misery: courtesy of the tax payer, they sip chablis and eat oysters every weekend. It sounds literally wonderful: a literary spy novel with two beautiful, deceptive protagonists at its heart. Sadly Sweet Tooth is rather dull. We learn in great detail about novelists in the seventies and the state of that nation as if we are reading an Economist’s guide to the era.
The food, somewhat unseventies-like, is described in incandescent detail, in comparison to the rest of the novel’s pedestrian prose. There is the most fantastic twist at the end of the novel; a twist that serves to make everything that went before seem merely an introduction. It is a novel in one act, with its solitary climax.
I listened to Sweet Tooth as an audiobook whilst I was exercising: it kept me going through numerous leg lifts and arm twirls, but had I not been multi-tasking, I doubt I would have persevered. It was wonderfully and thoughtfully-read by Juliet Stevenson, which helped.
The novel is assuredly written and Serena is a well-thought out character, but her relationship with Tom lacks life, charm, credibility. There is no emotional heart to this novel.