on 10 April 2014
I loved everything about this book. It poses as a tale of espionage but in fact turns out to be so much more than that - it's about love and trust, about writing and reading. The world of politics and MI5, from its low level offices of monotonous paperwork to its more exciting side of undercover operations and employee betrayals, comes second to the tension and suspense built through the development of character relationships. The 1970s setting is superbly depicted and I found Serena Frome to be a very convincingly real protagonist, with a distinctive personality and background established from the beginning, whose thoughts and actions are always true to the attributes that McEwan bestows upon her. The nuances of her emotional journey are explored in impressive and affective detail, and consequently her story is so incredibly engaging that I longed to know what happened to her and her surrounding characters beyond the final page of the book. McEwan's prose is smooth and vivid, and the novel's final twist is ingenious.
I wasn't convinced by McEwan's attempt at humour in Solar and this is very much a return to what I think he is good at. The story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume!) and narrated by her, it tells of her progression from studying maths at Cambridge (whilst nurturing her real passion for literature) to her recruitment by MI5 in the early 70s. MI5 at that time is very much a male-dominated organisation and the women recruited are given mostly admin tasks. Serena has left a relationship with an older married man at Cambridge (who groomed her for MI5) and is attracted to Max, a senior colleague at work. But her life changes when she is given a real assignment - managing a young author, Tom Haley, who MI5 believe to have the right (sic) tendencies to write the type of thing they like i.e. anti-communist essays and novels. Serena persuades Tom to accept funding (with its real source hidden) to support his work, but things are (somewhat predictably) complicated as she is immediately attracted to him and vice versa. From then it's only a matter of time before things start to unravel and although the novel is not exciting as such, the prose is extremely taut and is fairly un-putdownable.
I was concerned early on in the book that there was a lot of writing about writing going on, something I detest. And there are a lot of references to books and authors - there is even a very famous author who has a part in the book, although we never "see" him directly. But eventually I was won over by how McEwan meshes the plot, discussions about literature and even some short stories (including one about the Monty Hall problem (worth googling) and how it might - and might not - be the source of a short story about infidelity. The sense of the early 70s is well done and it there are fairly obvious points made about global financial crises then and now, although done implicitly and handled well. I couldn't spot many anachronisms and even if I could these could be explained away by the fact that Serena is narrating this from the present day.
I was a bit concerned about whether the author's voice was convincing as a woman in her sixties remembering her life in her late teens and early twenties and I have to say that I am sure this book will be up for a Bad Sex Award next time they are on. But it's certainly a page-turner and the final quarter of the book is extremely well handled and manages to throw in a twist or two. I don't think this is as good as, for example, The Innocent or The Child In Time (my favourite McEwan book) and it doesn't have the ability to shock like his early works (e.g. The Cement Garden) but it's very well done and certainly worth a read.
on 18 October 2012
McEwan's latest novel charts the progress of Serena Frome from the seat of her father's bishopric, via a mathematics degree at Cambridge, to a junior role in MI5 during the 1970s. Much of the novel is taken up with her romantic engagements, professional disappointments and love of literature until all of them become bound together in a single operation, Sweet Tooth.
There are writers -like Martin Amis, who appears as a minor character in this novel- who excel at writing gorgeous, funny, efficient prose and who create engaging characters but struggle to package it into a wholly satisfying novel. McEwen is at the other end of the spectrum; the complex structures of his novels are marvellously articulated but the tone and characters feel cold and, consequently, can leave the reader a little apathetic.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this novel only really seems to catch light in the latter third, when the plot (and the obligatory twist) accelerate and come to the fore. In comparison, the more prosaic early chapters seem to drag. There is some interest to be had from the minutiae of the security services, considerations on literature and a nice evocation of the winter of discontent. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to warm to Serena, who is so central to the novel and whose tribulations struck me as mundane and her insecurities annoying rather than endearing. There were also few tics in her first person narrative (repeated phrases, the sex descriptions) that seemed careless.
Retrospectively, there is a deus ex machina that absolves McEwan of stylistic flaws in use of language and characterisation but this seems rather egregious given that he himself, in interviews, has complained that first-person narratives are often used to hide poor style behind characterisation.
That is not to say this isn't a good novel; McEwan is, after all, one of Britain's preeminent living novelists. The plot is cunningly constructed and the twist itself is clever: it raises all sorts of questions regarding fiction and reality. There is genuine excitement to be had in the final third, although in the construction of such a meticulous plot, there were times, particularly in the early chapters, when McEwan seemed to allow the seams show. The plot is, nevertheless, an ideal instrument to play with themes of truth and lies, duty to self and duty to country, and autobiography and fiction. McEwan adroitly riffs on these themes with rare clarity.
Overall, this is a clever and adroitly constructed book that, for me, just lacks a little humanity.
This is one of those books that readers may find either clever - or just too clever-clever: I'm in the latter category. McEwan is on familiar territory as he makes broad comparisons between fiction and politics, the way ideological positions are all about narrative, about creating a story. Here he offers a view of MI5 in the mid-1970s taking on a project to fund anti-communist writers, including a novelist, to covertly infiltrate cultural consciousness with the governmental/security services' view.
This is not a new topic for fiction: Ellen Feldman's The Unwitting, for example, deals with precisely the same idea only set in New York with the CIA providing the cash. Where McEwan seems to lose his way, though, is in the rambling first person narrative of Serena as she bumbles her way speedreading through world literature, while falling into bed with a series of mostly older, unattractive men, and incidentally running Project Sweet Tooth on the side.
There is ultimately a reason for the stilted, artificial, contrived nature of Serena's storytelling but it's a tricky one to pull off and I didn't think it worked here. One, it's been almost used before by McEwan himself in another book, and two, it's just so self-consciously metaliterary that it's almost a pastiche of postmodern fiction.
In amongst all the literary game-playing, though, I did enjoy the evocation of the 1970s, especially the excursions into British interventions in Northern Ireland. So altogether this is a bit of a potpourri of a novel with lots of stuff mixed up together. Ultimately the voice we hear is always McEwan's own voice (the iambic rhythm of a train's wheels, for example) - self-conscious to the last.
on 18 February 2014
For a writer of whom the most oft-heard criticism is that he can't write women it would seem a bold strategy to take on a novel where the protagonist is a woman apparently looking back after forty years on her time in the service of MI5 in the early seventies. However, all is not what it appears and it transpires McEwan is giving himself a get out of gaol free card in the form of the final revelation that the narrator is not the person we assumed. So, that's fine then. Serena comes across as shallow and unbelievable not because McEwan can't write women but because she is not the one writing the apparent memoir. On the way, McEwan makes a passing jibe at those who make the other oft-heard criticism of him; that he can't write endings either. As a serial McEwan buyer and reader I am quite happy to accept this criticism. One generally gets 300 pages of good writing for one's money and the final disappointing five or six pages seldom make me think the book unworth the read (Atonement's appalling betrayal of the reader being an exception). But the problem with Sweet Tooth isn't the ending - although that doesn't really work. It's more that McEwan seems to have spent too much time working out how to be clever with the interplay between text and textuality and not enough time creating characters we can work up enough emotional investment to care about. I was engaged enough to ponder whether Haley was who he appeared to be, and even whether Canning had really died, but I was also aware that these were academic considerations and that the plot was as thin as a watery soup. The obsession with authors writing about authors is annoying. Here it borders on the embarrassing. As a McEwan fan I really found myself wishing he hadn't bothered to go into this territory. He even mentions the Booker twice! Horrible. Please don't even do this again, Ian. I'll keep buying McEwan because Amsterdam and Enduring Love were fine books, but I won't be re-reading Sweet Tooth.
on 28 August 2012
Opinions are strongly divided about McEwan. To some he can do no wrong. To others he appears too clever by half, knowing, and sly. I'm somewhere in between. No need to rehash the plot of Sweet Tooth - lots of reviews have done that. As someone who graduated in 1972, the same year as Serena Frome, the narrator and principal character, I enjoyed the 1970s setting, but was irritated that the opinions she expresses are not credibly those of a woman in her early 20s, but of McEwan forty years on. But then that is perhaps a clue to what is later revealed. The book is so readable that, even while I was having an internal dialogue with myself about whether this was a good book, I was chomping through the pages. I knew from other reviews that the ending was going to be a surprise. Inspite of that and after the full exercise of my active imagination, it still surprised me. Yes the book is shallow, self referential and up itself, but it is still hugely enjoyable. McEwan may be too clever by half, but he uses his sly, artful cleverness to entertain and surprise. What more can you expect from a work of fiction?
From the very first we know that this is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) who has been sent on a secret mission for the British security service, which ends in her being disgraced and her lover ruined... So it is with a feeling of slight dismay and misgiving that you delve into this novel about the daughter of an Anglican bishop, who has an affair with a tutor at Cambridge which leads her her being recruited for MI5. It is 1972 and Serena finds that what sounds an exciting career is little more than a glorified office job. However, in time she is involved in "Sweet Tooth", which ties her new job to her lifetime love of reading.
This is an interesting novel - more of a Harry Palmer than 007. Serena is very much a low ranking member of MI5 and her tasks involve more filing and cleaning safe houses than spying. She is a strange mixture of independence and reliance, but always realistically young and out of her depth. This is what makes the book so realistic, an odd mixture of spy novel and 1970's love story, with lots and lots of references to literature. There are sly digs at prestigious book awards, public readings and famous novelists and also many meanderings into short stories. Serena is always believable and likeable, young and idealistic and this is a really enjoyable story from a novelist who is at the height of his game and always in control of his plot and his characters.
It is the early seventies, and Serena Frome, the very attractive daughter of an Anglican bishop, is working towards a degree in mathematics at Cambridge, after being coerced into studying maths by her quietly ambitious mother, instead of studying English as she would have preferred. Serena, who has always been a compulsive and voracious reader, finds herself struggling with the standard of maths expected of her at Cambridge and looks elsewhere for her enjoyment, burying herself in her books and looking for romance. In her final year, she meets Tony Canning, her boyfriend's tutor, a much older, married man and they enter into a short, but passionate affair, part of which involves Tony grooming Serena for the intelligence service.
Serena manages to get through the screening process for the British Intelligence Service and starts working for MI5 in a very junior position; however she is keen to improve her prospects and when, through her knowledge of literature, she is assigned to an operation called 'Sweet Tooth' she is eager to prove her worth. Serena learns that MI5 have set up a cultural foundation to secretly support writers who speak out against communism and she is to act as a representative of the foundation. In her pose, Serena is to encourage a young writer, Tom Haley, to leave his post in academia and be supported by the foundation to enable him to write full time, but he must remain unaware that the funding is coming from MI5. Serena is initially successful in her mission, but when she becomes intellectually, physically and then emotionally involved with Haley, she finds leading a double life is much more difficult and less exciting than she had imagined and she also discovers that this is where the lines between truth and fiction become blurred. And this is true not just for Serena, but for the reader also.
This story is not so much about spying, but about deception, duplicity and the manipulation of truth. And, not least, it is about the power of literature. Peppered with references to life in the early 1970s, with terrorist threats, strikes, power cuts, three day weeks, mini skirts and sexual freedom, this cleverly written, multi-layered novel is full of stories within stories which will set you thinking, especially when you get to the twist at the end, where you might just feel like turning back to the first page and starting again.
on 10 January 2013
Difficult to review without introducing a spoiler, but I found this gripping. Of course, McEwan's lucid, elegant style is always a pleasure, whatever he's writing about, but particularly so here, since a novel about deception and intrigue depends so much on a pin-point clarity of writing. As an almost exact contemporary of the heroine (and, of course, McEwan) I can vouch for the accuracy of the depiction of the early 70's. (It reminds us that the country has been in an equally bad way in living memory).
So what else can I say without giving it away? Only that once you've read to the end, you will realise that not only the story, but the very theme of the novel is not what you thought it was..and what looks like something dark and cynical turns out to be ambiguously heartwarming. Perhaps! In any case, it's an engagingly devious piece of work.
on 1 June 2013
If, like me, you regard "Atonement" as the high-water mark of McEwan's achievements and were comprehensively unimpressed by "Solar", you will probably spend most of your time reading "Sweet Tooth" concluding McEwan's lost it. With a central character who's a a woman working for M15, you might be expecting something quite new from McEwan, a spell-binding story of espionage, just to show he can be a master of the genre. But although there is plenty of rather clunkily researched historical and political detail, you will realise by page fifty, it is not going to be that kind of work. By page one hundred, you may well be wondering what kind of work it is, the writing being so mediocre, the narrative voice so unconvincing. A Mills and Boon, rather light on romance? Another novel about writing itself? Certainly nothing would persuade one to read on except respect for McEwan's pervious achievements and the hope that surely at some point things will be turned round in a witty and satisfying manner. Then we will see why the writing is so feeble, the characterisation so banal, the plot so predictable... Or has McEwan exhausted a modest talent which was always more about literary tricks than substance? Is this anything but hackwork, relying upon a loyal following to pay the bills? It is with some desperation that one reaches the very edge of the cliff which must surely overlook a fall from grace, a smashing of the idol... Everything depends upon the final chapter.
If at the end, one feels a modicum of relief, a qualified respect for the craftsman, a shiver of admiration for the gamble, the trick, does it amount to much more? Repeating the "Atonement" procedure feels not so much risky as disappointing, the tediously long ride to the conjuror's surprise having been so much less engaging than in that enthralling and stylish novel. There are passages of pastiche, or self-mockery here, which only a master of the craft could have produced. But... but... shouldn't McEwan be exercising his considerable talents on a worthier project than a bit of silly showmanship? And aren't some of his reactionary social and political views becoming rather obtrusive?