on 13 January 2015
Ian McEwan's novel 'Sweet Tooth' is set in London in the early 1970s at a time when our security services are launching a programme to covertly finance young writers who could be useful to the government's ideological struggle against communism.
It follows its young protagonist Serena Frome through her recruitment by MI5 after her graduation from Cambridge. The programme in which she is asked to work is codenamed 'Sweet Tooth' and it seems Serena has been headhunted for her wide knowledge of modern fiction and ability to speed-read novels. But there may have been other, more sinister reasons behind her recruitment. She is tasked with vetting and recruiting writer Thomas Haley, an exciting new talent in the literary field, but matters start to get complicated when she finds herself romantically drawn to her target.
The 1970s setting of this story was a turbulent period in Great Britain, with industrial strikes and an energy crisis, the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' crossing over to the English mainland, the '3 Day Week' and shifts of power between political left and right. Paranoia over the Cold War between West and East spread to the arts and culture as opposing regimes sought to win over the minds of the young intelligentsia. McEwan sketches in these period details as a background to his story, and to someone like me - who lived in London as a student in the early 1970s - they come across as accurate, even nostalgic at times, as when he describes the run-down bedsits of London suburbs in which Serena stays.
However, I found the style of writing here - apparently a first person account written by Serena Frome - comes across as something like a pastiche of chick-lit, which I took to be McEwan's attempt to get inside the head of his twenty-something female protagonist - although we are led to believe this is the mature Serena writing now (the novel was published in 2012) about her time in MI5. All is not what it seems ...
It was not long after the introduction of the Thomas Haley character that I started to notice a number of autobiographical elements in McEwan's story. Haley - like McEwan - studied at the University of Sussex, rather lowbrow in comparison to Ms Frome and her Oxbridge set, and he writes rather bizarre stories that reminded me of McEwan's early collection in 'In Between the Sheets' (1978). Haley has written a novel that wins a prestigious literary prize, mirroring McEwan's own achievement when he won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976. And then in 'Sweet Tooth' McEwan starts introducing a number of real life characters as Haley's acquaintances who just happen to be figures from McEwan's own literary circle.
McEwan name-drops a number of the literary figures of the time, and a lot of other writers of whom he approves, and - if I were to gain nothing else from this work - I am indebted to the author for introducing me here to the poems of Edward Thomas, a poet of the Great War who somehow had passed me by. His poem 'Adlestrop' features in this novel.
As the story develops, we can start to see the author's hand at play as through his avatar Haley he starts to play with our perceptions. The theme of the story appears to be the relationship between artistic integrity and government propaganda. However, the novel seeks to on work on several different levels, and I was somewhat disappointed to find McEwan dropping the political context and not following through many of the period threads that he introduced earlier in the story. It turns out that this is a work of meta-fiction, a novel about the creation of fiction, exploring how the writer takes characters and experiences from real life and combines and re-shapes them into a work of fiction.
McEwan ends the book with a piece of sleight of hand that is meant to be a surprising twist, the final distortion of our understanding of what we have been reading, although I suspect that many readers will see it coming. It would be wrong if I said I did not enjoy reading 'Sweet Tooth' and if it had been penned by any other writer I would probably be kinder towards it. It is an entertaining read, playful and inoffensive. But I expect a lot more from Ian McEwan, and therefore it disappoints.
on 23 February 2013
Having read all McEwan's novels to date, I'm getting to the point where familiarity is perhaps breeding contempt. Let's be honest, you know what you're going to get with a McEwan story, and he hasn't really produced anything strikingly different since Amsterdam - the many fans of Atonement will no doubt disagree, however that left me cold too. Sweet Tooth features the usual unlikeable protagonists, a moribund cold-war storyline set against the dismal backdrop of early 1970s Britain, and a mildly surprising denouement; it's perfectly readable, but if you want something a little more fascinating or challenging, there are plenty of superior writers out there.
on 27 July 2013
I've not read many five star reviews of this book so far on Amazon, but I thought this book was so clever, so well-done, so readable - in short, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I really feel it deserves those five stars.
Like many reviewers, I stand in awe of McEwan and his craftmanship in the creation of his novels. Unlike many reviewers, I loved his main character of Serena Frome and I loved the way the story was told. She was so shallow, just a good time girl, getting through her working days somehow, but forever thinking of the latest bonk and the latest book - Serena seems to be able to speed her way through both. When she is "assigned" Tom Haley, the conclusion is foregone really - she's bound to end up in bed with him - it's a wonder she makes it to their second meeting before doing so.
I loved her story and - again, unlike some reviewers - I found her "voice" was original and striking and quite believeable. Like Serena, I love reading and can utterly relate to the pleasure of a pile of books by the bed. The themes in the book were beautifully brought to life by her pleasure in fiction - deception, duplicity, what is real and what is fiction in the interpretation of our own lives.
Like the fantastic "On Chesil Beach", the book can be defined by one line - obviously I can't reveal it here because it would be such a spoiler, but the reveal when it comes, is so clever, it left me literally gasping for breath. It transformed an ordinary, albeit very readable novel, into - in my opinion, a work of genius.
I loved this book, I thought it was so clever. I would recommend it (but as you will see from other reviews, not everyone feels the same as me!)
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?
on 6 November 2012
I am an avid fan of McEwan but I feel that like many of his generation - Banks and Swift, for example - he is struggling to come up with plotlines that make the reader care about the outcome. When I started this book I felt the familiar awe at the man's superlative craftsmanship. I also give him huge credit for continually coming up with totally new situations and scenarios around which to write his novels - he never falls into the trap of being formulaic. However, the novel itself, sadly, is bit of a dog's breakfast. As one who remembers the period well, I was quite fascinated to see him tackle this period of our history when the left wing of politics seemed to flirt a little too closely with the Communists and where otherwise sane people were promoting Eastern Europe as a "Worker's Paradise". The basic premise of a front organisation for MI5 promoting artists who might counter the silly pro-Soviet propaganda of the time seems potty now but I don't think it was implausible then. Perhaps the portrayal of a misogynistic class-ridden MI5 is accurate too.
Sarah Froome, apart from being a laughably implausible spy, is a curiously empty character who seemingly thinks only of her last bonk. By the end I still didn't care about her. It's that kind of book. At one point McEwan ties himself in linguistic knots trying to explain some obscure quirk of mathematical probability and which, like his Tom Haley, he seems to have only half-grasped after a conversation in a pub. What on earth was Ian M thinking of? Tom Haley goes with bewildering speed from obscure university lecturer to award-winning novelist, out-penning such literary pigmies as Martin Amis. What a load of horse manure! Still, at least I could identify a little with him.
Then there's the much talked-about "twist". Well, my apologies to those who see it that way, but I found it absurd and I think McEwan just didn't know how else to finish the novel off. I was going to give this novel 3 stars You know, when I think about it, this was a heap of dross really - albeit classy dross.
I think Ian is going backwards as a novellist. He needs to take a long hard look at his plot lines and be honest with himself about where the line between improbability and absurdity lies. Above all, he needs to create characters with some warmth that we can care about.
on 23 September 2013
One of the reasons I was drawn to reading this book is that it is set in Brighton and I'll be popping down there again in a few weeks. Also, looking back over my reviews it would appear I'm a bit of a fan of McEwan's work. So is Sweet Tooth a tasty treat or a painful cavity? As soon as I started reading the story of the ups and downs of Serena Frome, the girl who "carried everything without complaint", I could hear the soundtrack to Georgy Girl in my head.
The golden rule is to always have a Plan B, and without this it would have been a rather sad little novel. For all the protagonist's brains and beauty there is something amiss. At Cambridge she learns too swiftly that she's not clever enough. There are echoes of other Oxbridge novels here. I found the idea of a physical relationship between gorgeous Serena and the history prof rather unpalatable, whilst at the same time understanding the irony: Serena no more chose this path any more than she chose to work for MI5. There is something of a Greek tragedy where the young heroine is pushed on to the stage to deliver lines she hasn't learnt. It's all rather "crinkly and loud" and depressing. As soon as a safe house is named a safe house it's a dangerous place to be.
But it's not all frothless tragedy: Serena mighty be a ditsy near-genius, but we persevere, dear reader, because we know there's something rather The-Spy-Who-Came-In-From-The-Cold about it all. Even if it means we have to plough through several short stories to get there. The one about the laws of probability pertaining to adultery is a howler. But does it actually do anything for the plot? Maybe this is a code?
The story of how a girl inhabits the different compartments of her life all along the theme to Georgy Girl. Can't wait for the movie to be released!
on 9 October 2012
When I was at school, my English Teacher always said "if you're not enjoying a book, put it down and read something else". I almost did on a few occasions with this book but kept going as I trusted in this particular writer's delivery of something worthwhile.
One of the Amazon reviews said it was worth waiting for the last chapter. Well actually it wasn't and I wished I hadn't bothered.
I found the characters unconvincing, the plot only just short of colourless and the pace extremely slow. Why have I given it three stars? Ian McEwan writes beautifully and I enjoy his turn of phrase and descriptions. But those have to be wrapped around a plot which has enough pace to keep your concentration or even better, to stop you putting it down.
I've got a small pile of books waiting to be read. Now I can go on to them.
Set in the 1970s, this is a very enjoyable spy and love story. It is wonderfully written, as you might expect of Ian McEwan, and the pages fly by, leading to an unexpected and rather wonderful ending. The UK of the 1970s is recreated superbly with lots of detail and colour.
The book focuses on the life of Serena Frome, the daughter of a bishop, who studies mathematics at Cambridge to please her family, but whose first love is literature. Later, a romance with an older man leads to her recruitment into the intelligence services, and the opportunity to be involved in the literary world through the involvement of British Intelligence in the culture wars of the Cold War. She falls in love again and this love affair, and its consequences, provides the main story of the book, whilst deception and the difficulty of knowing what is real, is the running theme
There are some great little short stories woven into this book too - although important to the main story, they are also excellent little tales in their own right. This is for the most part an uplifting novel, full of great writing, with something of the feel of John le Carre at his best.
I loved this, and If you have read and enjoyed Ian McEwan's earlier books you will almost certainly love this too.
on 2 November 2012
In a literary environment where fewer and fewer authors get more and more accolades, this book is guaranteed to stir up the superlatives. As the inside cover tells us, it's the work of 'the supreme novelist of his generation' and an 'unrivalled literary giant.' I wonder if any of the critics whose opinion carries the imprimatur of The New York This and The London That ever think of that modest little story called The Emperor's New Clothes. I'm willing to bet if Sweet Tooth were to be submitted to a dozen publishers as the work of an unknown writer it would be summarily rejected.
Having liked some of McEwan's earlier novels. I bought this as an audio book to accompany me on an interstate drive, and oh dear. I've heard of road rage. I got book rage. I was trapped with the thing, in a very small space, and it just went on and on and on.
What's the problem? Where to begin?
Sterile narrative style. McEwan can write perfectly correct prose stretching ad infinitum, but this stuff is both flat and fake, utterly predictable in its cadences and completely lacking in any sense of personal voice. There's no warmth and no flexibility, no sense of rhythm other than that belonging to the instant mix and match repertoire of formal English prose. Ok, so the narrator/protagonist is a bishop's daughter, someone who is underdeveloped in the personality department, but that's no excuse.
Central persona. She just doesn't add up. Supposed to be 'rather gorgeous' and very well educated, with a maths degree from Cambridge, she is passive, confused, cringingly on the lookout for sexual attention and in the habit of picking up male mentors. As a consequence of which she is taken for a complicated succession of rides. It's a sign of poor quality thriller writing if the plot twists can only occur because somebody in the cast list fails to spot the bleeding obvious. Serena just never knows when she is being taken for a ride.
The other key characters are even more unprepossessing, especially the supposedly gifted young male writer upon whose work she lavishes the kind of sycophantic praise McEwan is used to receiving from the New York this and the London that. We get to hear a summary of all this guy's stories, each of which is more dismal than the last: exercises in misfired sociology, revolving around sexual encounters that make you wince.
As for the writing itself - the text is packed with redundant adjectives and adverbs, gratuitous tautological phrases, lingering descriptions which have no purpose other than to display the author's confidence in his capacity to make the reader's brain glow with admiration at every paragraph...
No I haven't got to the end. I'm stopping at the next gas station for whatever pap is on offer. At least it will be honest pap.
on 23 August 2012
Some of Ian McEwan's female characters have been enigmatic rather than complex and fully realised. I was starting to wonder if he felt he didn't understand women or feel confident in creating female protagonists. Then he writes a book from the point of view of Serena Frome.
Serena's passion is reading, but she is very good at mathematics at school, so is persuaded by her mother to study the subject at university and to have a successful career, rather than be 'a better educated housewife'. Serena is a nice, middle class, grammar school educated girl with a very mild spirit of rebellion. She feels uncomfortable standing up to male authority figures, but is enough of a feminist not to be subservient to men simply for being male. She has a realistic number of relationships with men, all of whom are older or more intelligent or better informed: men who have earned her respect and thus the right to deference. She does not agree with the lack of career opportunities for women, but she accepts it as a fact. She knows she is pretty, but is not obsessed with her looks. I believe in his Serena. All her actions and decisions are consistent with who she is, when the story is set and the situations she finds herself in.
Serena is Ian McEwan's creation, as are the other characters in this novel. Within the novel are other created characters: Serena, Jeremy, Tony and Max all play a role which they have created for themselves, MI5 create cover stories (legends, according to John le Carre) for their agents, Tom is a writer and creates fictional characters, who may contain parts of himself. Tom may contain elements of Ian McEwan. There are multiple layers of truth, deception and invention. The ending is perfect.
On top of all that, Ian McEwan gives a lucid explanation of the the 'three box paradox', which would be worth an extra half star in its own right.