Friday, October 02, 2015

the last book I read

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.

It's the early 1970s, and Serena Frome, in her final year at Cambridge, is having an affair with a high-ranking MI5 spook, as pretty much everyone was doing in the early 1970s. Serena's lover, Tony Canning, is married, so things are inevitably going to end badly, but once they have it transpires that Tony has recommended Serena for a post at MI5.

Serena and the small number of female employees at MI5 (including a thinly-disguised Stella Rimington) have to wade through a mountain of sexist bullshit every day - again, par for the course for the early 1970s - but eventually Serena reaches a position of trust secure enough for her to be handed a key role in Operation Sweet Tooth, a long-term campaign to stealthily fund, via some convincingly-constructed charities and other "front" organisations, some writers broadly sympathetic to MI5's cause, which means, broadly speaking, right-leaning and anti-communist.

Serena is a voracious devourer of books - one of the reasons she got the job in the first place - so she's well-placed to assess possible candidates and make a judgment as to their suitability. Having chosen a candidate, Tom Haley, she is also nominated to play the part of the representative of one of the fictitious charitable trusts and persuade him to come on board, for an appropriate fee of course. Though the initial "persuasion" takes a relatively blameless route, Serena's ongoing monitoring of Haley's output and commitment to the project eventually starts to involve sleeping with him. As their relationship starts to get more serious, and one of Haley's short novels wins a serious literary award, Serena is faced with a dilemma: what should she tell him? Matters are soon taken out of her hands when some investigative journalism reveals not only the murky links between MI5 and the literary charities, but also Serena and Tom's relationship and Serena's involvement with MI5. What will Tom say when he finds out?

The first thing to say about Sweet Tooth is that although it appears to be a spy thriller (like, say, Reckless), it's actually a book about writing. McEwan has quite a bit of fun describing the synopses of some of Haley's early short stories, and borrowing extensively from his own oeuvre to do it, as well as throwing in a few cameos from his real-life 1970s chums (Martin Amis, for instance), and then right at the end delivers the twist which throws everything that's gone before into a different light. Seasoned McEwan-watchers will recognise that he pulled essentially the same trick towards the end of Atonement, a more ambitious book (but one which I nonetheless failed to completely get the hang of). Other books in this series that pull similar tricks include The Medusa Frequency, The History Of Love and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

The second thing to say about it is that I enjoyed it, though, as with a lot of McEwan's recent output, not as much as some of the earlier stuff. You expect a bit of le Carré-esque twisty-turniness once it's been established that there's an espionage story going on, for instance, and we never really get very much of that. In fact, for all that it's billed as a spy story, the actual work that Serena ends up doing is pretty far removed from anything resembling "spying" in the generally accepted sense, though I accept that this sort of thing probably went on back in the 1970s. Basically her job seems to have been some light literary criticism with a bit of extra-curricular shagging on the side; nice work if you can get it. As far as McEwan's novels in general go, I still say the late 1980s and 1990s stuff (including The Child In Time, Black Dogs and Enduring Love) is the best.

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