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Like an ice sculpture: perfectly carved but rather cold
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.