Sweet Tooth is the story of Serena Frome, a young lady living in 1970s Britain, who after a sheltered upbringing as the daughter of a Bishop, embarks on a Maths degree at Cambridge, where becoming involved in a short lived affair with one of the college tutors, is groomed by him to enter a career in MI5 . Serena is low in the ranks, however, and her life fairly mundane both in and outside of the office; that is until being an avid reader of fiction, she is assigned to a secret project, code name Sweet Tooth. M15 wishes to counter Communist propaganda by offering financial assistance to up and coming young writers who display in their work an anti-Communist slant, albeit of course covertly. Serena is to handle a promising young writer of short stories, Tom Haley. Matters get complicated, however, when Serena finds herself becoming romantically embroiled with Haley. How long can she keep up the double life, how thin is the line between truth and fiction, and in this murky world of intelligence, does Serena really know who she can trust?
This makes for an absorbing and intelligent read, with an abundance of ideas thrown at the reader, yet all elegantly and quite superbly crafted together. McEwan recreates the atmosphere of the early seventies exceedingly well, with its strikes, energy crises, political unrest, threat of terrorism and air of impending emergency. The shadowy corridors of MI5, the office politics and bureaucracy are also well described; and there is an undercurrent of tension, of not knowing who to trust that lurks throughout the novel.
However, Sweet Tooth is not the typical espionage story; if anything it is more to do with the process and culture of writing. There are stories within stories, as many of Tom Haley's fictional works are incorporated into the writing; both enjoyable in their own right, and raising questions of what motivates a writer's ideas, how much you can glean of an author from their work, and also what the reader expects or hopes for.
The writing itself is a joy to read, the central characters well created, and it is clear the author is having fun in telling the story, which has a dry sense of humour throughout. The twist at the end was absolutely fantastic, and throws a whole new light on the entire story; to the point where I was compelled to go back to the beginning and read it again, knowing what I now knew. Yet I didn't feel cheated as can sometimes be the case with suprise endings; rather it felt right, the entire novel making more sense in view of it.
Overall this is a very clever story, with interesting central ideas and themes that are well explored, characters you feel invested in, and a central romance that is involving. Well worth a read, and then a re-read!