Sweet Tooth. A Novel by Ian McEwan, Alfred A Knopf, Canada, 2012
It didn’t take much to get me excited about reading the latest Ian McEwan. I saw, firstly, that it was dedicated to one of my favourite people, the redoubtable Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011. Secondly, McEwan has a way of hooking the reader into his story from the first page. It is a remarkable gift, this – he seems to do it every time, for me, at any rate.
Then, I like the way he savours his words. I like the way in which they are packaged and presented. I like the way he uses words like “orotund” – meaning pompous, or pretentious – and gets away with it, without sounding it. I like the way he can set you the scene by a simple phrase - “Among the favoured topics in letters to The Times were the miners, ‘a worker’s state’, the bipolar world of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, flying pickets, and the Battle for Saltley” – and there you have it! You are plunged immediately back into the Britain of the 1970’s.
I love the way he lets the reader see the ways in which his characters think and look. Of the main character, (a somewhat conservative MI5 Agent called Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), who was recruited by a much older lover – “I went on working in Curzon Street while I tended the little shrine of my secret grief”. Of a minor character, who becomes hugely significant later on in the novel “It was the case that his ears protruded from strange hillocks of bone at the sides of his skull and those ears were awfully pink”.
She, the narrator, describes one passing character as someone with a “dry gingerish look and the tightly swallowed vowels of a South African, though he originally came from Surrey”. These are brilliances. They are polished and they duly shine. They have a savour and a scent that is just wonderful and ravishing. And the book is laced with them.
Then there are the casual observances – “Reality isn’t always middle class”. “We were like tennis players warming up, rooted to our baselines, sending fast but easy balls down the centre of the court to our opponent’s forehand, taking pride in our obliging accuracy”. Now that is dazzling writing!
The story is, nonetheless, an easy one. Miss Frome is tasked with signing up a talented young novelist to a foundation – run by MI5 and codenamed “Sweet Tooth”. A fairly daft idea of the secret service funding novelists, who, it is hoped, will project a particular view of Britain, inside and out. She falls for the smart young novelist whom she has tethered and has to live with the strange, but delicious deception of not revealing to him who she really is.
Her background is ordinary. She is the daughter of an Anglican Bishop. “It was”, she says, “one of the blessings of our family life, and perhaps Anglicanism in general, that we were never expected to go to church to hear or see our father officiate. It was of no interest to him whether we were there or not”.
She is mendacious, for sure. But she isn’t evil or wanton. She is ordinary – the perfect spy. The fact that she is “rather gorgeous as well” certainly counts in her favour. Her task is a relatively small one. The project is peripheral. But she derives great pleasure from it.
The book describes the tests and turns of a fairly ordinary, very happy and rather fulfilling relationship. The sex is good. The money coming from the Foundation makes life easy. The couple enjoy good dinners with good wine on a much more regular basis than would normally be the case for people of their age. They are happy and content. And then a disaster which was waiting to happen, does.