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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Happy Birthday, Ian McEwan! (Review of SWEET TOOTH)

Today, June 21, is Ian McEwan’s 68th birthday.  I’ve loved all of his novels which I’ve read:  Enduring Love, Amsterdam, Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach, Solar, Sweet Tooth, and The Children Act.

The great news is that a new book by McEwan will be released September 13:  Nutshell.  “Nutshell is an altogether original story of deceit and murder, told by a narrator with a perspective and voice unlike any in recent literature. Love and betrayal, life and death come together in the most unexpected, moving ways in this sensational new novel from Ian McEwan, which will make readers first gasp with astonishment then laugh with delight. Dazzling, funny and audacious, it is the finest recent work from a true master, beautifully told, brilliantly executed” (https://www.amazon.ca/Nutshell-Ian-McEwan/dp/0345812409/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1466264165&sr=8-1&keywords=Nutshell).

I’ve already posted My review of his latest novel, The Children Act (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2015/12/review-of-children-act-by-ian-mcewan.html), so in honour of McEwan’s special day, I thought I’d post my review of his penultimate novel, Sweet Tooth.

4 Stars  
Serena Frome, after graduating from Cambridge, gets a position with the British Intelligence Service after being groomed for MI5 by an older man with whom she has an affair. Eventually she is given the job of covertly recruiting a writer who has shown anti-communism tendencies, in the hopes that his writing will balance the bias of conventional media. Of course Serena falls in love with her recruit, Tom Haley. As their relationship develops and becomes “mired in deceit” (319), Serena faces a dilemma: should she tell Tom the source of the stipend he receives that allows him to devote all his time to writing and thereby risk losing him because of her betrayal?

The novel is set in 1972, and there is much reference to domestic politics of the time: miners’ strikes, energy crises, and IRA bombings. At times I found the political ramblings rather tedious. The other section of the book that is tedious is the retelling of Haley’s short stories - which Serena reads prior to deciding if his political views make him an appropriate candidate to be recruited as a soldier in the cultural war against communism. Reading the actual stories would have been much more interesting that being given not very succinct synopses.

Serena is not a likeable character. She has led a sheltered life, growing up “inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies” (1). She is shallow and self-absorbed. For example, when she fears Tom might throw her out of his apartment, she thinks, “I would need to remember my hairdryer” (277). On her way to first meet Tom, she observes, “And how could anyone resist me in my confection of red, white and black . . . “(136). As she admits at the very beginning, she is not especially good at her job: “Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover . . .” (1). She has her positive traits such as “cleverness, beauty and tenderness . . . love of sex and fun . . . wry humour and sweet protective instincts” but for me these are outweighed by her “impulses of snobbery, ignorance and vanity, . . . minimal social conscience . . .[and]self-pity” (318).

The novel is a story of deceptions and half-truths. Serena certainly deceives Tom, but there are several other characters who also hide the truth. Furthermore, McEwan plays a trick on the reader, as becomes evident with the twist in the final chapter. At one point, when reading Tom’s stories, Serena comments, “Vulgar curiosity made me wonder if every sentence confirmed or denied or masked a secret intention” (109). Readers familiar with other of McEwan’s novels (Atonement) will wonder as well as they read this novel. Upon finishing, my immediate reaction was to begin the book anew to examine it from the new perspective given by the ending.

Of course, there is foreshadowing, so the reader should be prepared. Tom and Serena have a discussion about literature: “I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks” (184). Since Tom shares several biographical details with McEwan, it is a logical assumption that there will be a trick, that he will be the “double agent” Serena despises: “I wasn’t impressed by those writers . . . who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast . . . So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent” (66).

I enjoyed the discussions about the different types of literature. Serena prefers the realist approach; she believes writers “should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they made up” (66). She goes so far as to admit, “I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man” (65). What a telling comment! Tom, on the other hand, is a modernist who admires the experimentalists (184-185). There is also reference to the “lower grade of fiction, like a mass-market romance” (65). The woman who writes “’a soppy romantic novel’” (264), what is commonly known as “’Commercial stuff’” (260), is paid “’a bloody fortune’” and the film rights are bought for her “’pulp fiction’” (295). Meanwhile, Tom, the serious writer, wins a prize but is still dependent on “an independent source of income” (319).

I shall return to this book again. I think McEwan’s technique is worth examining more closely, although at times I got the impression that the writing of the book was very much a metacognitive exercise, and I could almost sense a smugness in his cleverness. In my opinion, it does not rank as highly as Atonement, but it would be unfair to expect every novel to be such a dazzling achievement.