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Ian McEwan: Sweet Tooth

McEwan’s last two novels have been frankly disappointing. While this one is certainly an improvement, it can best be described as light-weight though fun. It tells the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume, as she tells us), daughter of an Anglican bishop. She is particularly gifted at maths, though much prefers reading novels, of which she seems to read a large quantity. She had wanted to read English at university but her mother persuades her that she should read maths, not least because as a woman in the early 1970s, she will have a much greater chance of getting a place in what is very much a male subject, so she goes to Cambridge University. While there, she finds that though gifted at maths at her school, she cannot compare with the geniuses she meets at Cambridge and finds it a great struggle. However, she continues to devour novels, not really discriminating in her taste, not, as she herself puts it, distinguishing between Jane Austen and Jacqueline Susann. She has a succession of casual relationships till she meets Jeremy. When out one day with Jeremy, they bump into his history tutor, Tony Canning. (Pedantry corner and proof that McEwan does not know Cambridge. In Cambridge, he would be called a history supervisor.) She soon starts an affair with Canning while Jeremy explores his bisexual side.

Canning is, of course, married but he has a small cottage in the country near Bury St. Edmunds, which his wife does not like, so they have their trysts there. Canning benefits her in two ways (apart from the sex). He teaches her a lot, for example about the history of England and politics, and it turns out that he is a recruiter for MI5. He suggests that she apply and, despite her third in her maths degree, she is accepted. She and Canning have by now split up. She starts off as a lowly assistant as, in those days, women were not considered suitable for the rough and tumble of MI5. There is however one exception – Millie Trimingham, a not very well disguised Stella Rimington. As the novel has progressed, there have been two other key activities. Firstly, it is 1970s Britain, where chaos reigns – miners’ strikes, three-day week, oil prices rises and so on. In particular, MI5 has turned from focusing on the Soviet Union to focusing on domestic issues, including the trade unions but also the IRA. Secondly, Serena has been steadily reading her novels. We get a glimpse of her (poor taste). She likes Kingsley Amis and Solzhenitsyn and does not like more modern authors, such as Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis and B S Johnson. There is no mention of her views on McEwan.

Her knowledge of the modern novel stands her in good stead. Sweet Tooth is the code-name of a project MI5 are setting up to encourage writers who write the ‘right’ way, i.e. not left-wing, not critical of the US and UK, not critical of capitalism. They are well aware of the Ramparts exposure of Encounter, so they know they have to tread warily. One of the MI5 officers, Max Greatorex, is key to this. Her and Serena had become good friends and she had started to be attracted to him, though his response was at best lukewarm. However, he had put her forward for this project. An author, Tom Haley, was identified. He had written both articles and short stories which were of the ‘right’ sort. We actually see three of his stories and they are absolutely awful, which may reflect McEwan’s poor judgement, Selena’s poor judgement or, most likely, McEwan’s mocking of MI5’s poor judgement. Given that both Tom Maschler (who first published McEwan) and Ian Hamilton (who published McEwan in the New Review) both seem to like them, it is not clear who likes what and who is being mocked. In any case, she is sent off, nominally with the backing of a real foundation, which agrees to act as a front, to encourage Haley by offering him a stipend from the foundation, so he can quit his job teaching at a college and devote himself to writing a novel which is not left-wing, modernist, anti-US or anti-UK and so on. The outcome is of course stunningly predictable.

While this is quite an enjoyable read, it really is not very good and, if it had not been written by McEwan, neither I nor, I imagine, many others would have read it. It is sad to see a writer of the calibre of McEwan slide down the slippery slope but, sadly, it is what appears to be happening. It is to be hoped that he can pick himself up. There are many writers who produced interesting work when older – Nabokov, Conrad and García Márquez spring to mind, so maybe, just maybe, McEwan can. However, on the basis of his last three novels, it is not looking promising.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Jonathan Cape