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This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Hardcover)
One given about any McEwan novel is that it will be written in clever and considered prose and this one certainly is.Whether the reader gets on with the plot or not,they will admire the quality of the writing. Even when,I suspect,the author wants to impart an element of the erotically banal into this work,he still does the sex scenes as well as many another less artful author might working to their imaginative limit.
But this book isn't really about the sex,or the spy story or the name dropping from the author's past or his reading list,in my opinion.What I think McEwan is giving us here is a rumination on what fiction is,where it comes from and what purpose it serves.At some stage in most novels,we know where we are but by the time I reached the end of this one,I had no bloody idea where the storytelling started,who was doing it and to what purpose.Layer these considerations on top of a story which,even if read conventionally,consists of serial betrayal and subterfuge and you have something to think about for a while.
The cleverness here is the apparent lack of cleverness.McEwan has employed the techniques used by William Boyd in his latest - the historical and geographical detail,the dramatic twists of plot-to seduce the reader into a false sense of security.Here's McEwan,I thought,treading the path down the hill to the valley of the page turner trading on his former glory with a bit of sex and spying and some recycling of recent history and I didn't mind because he does it so well.However,I was falling for a fiction as contrived as those deployed at several levels within the book.It's almost as if the author is asking the reader if they really think that he's fallen to the next rung down on the literary ladder and then producing the unspectacular ending that exposes just what has been going on.
Much as I enjoyed the book,I will admit to some embarrassment in response to the examination here of where I and many of my friends were in our thinking about the Soviet Union and the United States.Blinded at times by our outrage against the evident excesses of the latter,we excused the crimes that had been committed and were still being committed by the former.There was need for criticism and protest against what was being done by "our" side but it didn't obviate the need for a similar attitude to be taken against the criminality and cruelty that existed behind the Iron Curtain.Falling for another fiction,I remember sounding off blithely in defence of what I now see as indefensible in this respect and McEwan must have listened to many like me at the time and made notes for later.