An absolute delight,
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Kindle Edition)
After the personal reading debacle that was Solar, I had almost given up on McEwan, but he delivers such a sucker punch with Sweet Tooth, that in one stroke I am back to being a humble fanboy. I have read this book twice and listened to it in Juliet Stevenson's marvellous audio performance and its charm and intellect, heart and head, just fails to dull. In an accessible, pithy prose, it begins as a first person account of a Cambridge-graduated female mathematician who finds herself recruited for the British intelligence agency MI5. She is assigned a mission called Sweet Tooth where she has to recruit a young author for a fictitious British charitable arts council and hide the fact that he is being taken under the wing for his political stance and background. As she manoeuvres through the sexist world of the 70s workplace and finds herself yoked in one affair too many, you find yourself totally invested in this lone earnest-sounding rag-doll being dropped and slapped quietly but abruptly by lovers and friends always two steps ahead of her.
*possible spoiler* Much of the novel's charm for me came from McEwan's total inhabiting of this female voice. A self-effacing, nose-screwing snob who is endearingly engaged with her nation's everyday fate and yet revealingly clueless about her reality, the chiaroscuro of the whole flawed human endures the climactic rug-pulling by the author that reveals her as an impression. This multi-fangled impression in retrospect, this seeming version which is no more than a confident appropriation of hers by a male paramour-an author surrogate- separates McEwan by one degree from any criticism coming his way to "become" a woman, but for the reader, it's an unexpected haunting note that fails to die (Who was she?, Was she really like this?) *spoiler ends*. Unlike many detractors, I felt the bang of the final chapter fittingly pares down both the melodrama of the affairs and the straight faced revisionist account-of-the-times behind-closed-doors a la Le Carre. I am more comfortable with this winking and the intellectual souffle that is baked just right.
Amidst this maze of smokes and mirrors befittingly set in the corridors of British intelligence of the Cold War years, the scope of a country's intelligence agency's perniciousness in driving the politics and opinions of the engaged literati and news aficionados among the literate masses and those in power has a timeless relevance: it has had historical touchpoints in the 20th century fascist and communist heydays, drives much of the cultural amnesia in communist footholds and dictatorships in atleast half the world today and in the so-called "liberated" Western world today the said intelligence agencies can be replaced with contemporary multi-million media conglomerates with boards filled with editors, network heads and journalists who double up as communications directors and other facetious advisory posts in governments which themselves are lobbied by firms and global companies with only profiteering on agenda, and you have the picture. To see the current overloaded information nexus in its more elemental form when there was a smidgen of authority attached to a much smaller fourth estate is a delight and a nice reminder that one must not read without one's radar for subtexts switched off. We are all driven by agendas, those in power more so: to be aware of where people come from and what drives them is the key to decoding all of the "civilised" world.
Talking of subtexts in written material, there is a beautiful nuance of this girl huddled up in her bedsit trying to work out the nature of the author she hasn't met from his short stories. There is another superb little subplot where her writing lover gets to construct a little story derived from their interaction: however imagined, however fanciful, however separated from happening-reality-of-this-novel's-world, these are welcome tributes to the joys and disappointments of creating fiction, reading it, assessing its merits and filling it with people you imagine they are.