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on 16 June 2015
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.
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on 29 September 2016
Oh Ian McEwan, the big tease – master of the great turnaround, the twist that has his readers jumping from their seats, hurling the book across the room in amazement. A twist you instinctively know must be coming, but which nevertheless fails to shock. You think you’ll see it before it hits, and then at the very last moment, McEwan pulls the rug out from under your feet.

But it’s not the twisty-turny aspect of McEwan’s narratives which gives them their sap. It’s rather the handle he has on his characters’ moral tuning: the way he gradually raises the emotional temperature until the story is, to overcook a metaphor, on the boil. As Serena Frome agonises over her role in Sweet Tooth, an MI5 operation aimed at wringing political purchase from cultural endeavour, so does the reader.

Posing as the representative of a foundation which supports the work of young artists, Serena offers young novelist Tom Haley a stipendium which will enable him to give up his work as an academic and focus purely on writing his first novel. The rightist bent of Haley’s short stories is considered another potential weapon in the cultural war against communist propaganda. And the fact that Serena then falls in love with her mark prevents her from warning him of the potential trap into which he is about to fall as a dupe of the secret service.

One suspects that McEwan also had a lot of fun while writing this book, with his knowing references to the ‘up and coming’ authors of the 1970s, like Martin Amis, or the ‘new-fangled’ Booker prize. But at its heart, this is a novel which has very serious things to say about artistic integrity and the precarious relationship between politics and literature. And fundamentally, it’s a love story, and a beautiful one at that. Reading Sweet Tooth was yet another reminder of just how adept McEwan is at calibrating the vagaries of the human heart.
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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.
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on 17 July 2013
Like all good spy stories, there is much in `Sweet Tooth' that isn't as it first seems. The simple sentences of Selena Frome, the novel's first person narrator, are immediately arresting. However, there is shortly another `voice'. This is T. H. [Tom] Haley, a budding writer of fiction whom MI5, through Selena, cultivates in Operation Sweet Tooth. As a writer, it is apposite that we hear Tom's voice through extracts from his short stories and first novel and a lengthy letter to Selena that constitutes the final chapter of McEwan's own novel. Haley's is a voice that is sometimes very similar to Selena's but their dialectics can differ radically. Without giving away McEwan's wonderful ending, suffice to say that Haley's 20 page letter is revelatory. Its contents turn the elements of the novel on their head.

`Sweet Tooth' is a spy story that vividly evokes a Britain at the end of the Heath government with industrial unrest, new universities, male chauvinism and the IRA. It is also a romance, steamy with passionate sex suffused by the inevitable subsequent deceits, moral dilemmas and betrayals. All this is reminiscent of McEwan's earlier `The Innocent' with its brilliant intertwining of espionage, passion and a sense of `place' and `time'. A theme specific to `Sweet Tooth' is where authors find inspiration and how a creative spark can become a flame. This is fascinating stuff. Not only does McEwan turn all these elements on their head, he does it wonderfully well - simply, satisfyingly and cleverly.

Tom tells Selena that his `favourite spy story' is `Operation Mincemeat'. This involved a ruse whereby British Intelligence misdirected Hitler about the allied invasion of southern Europe. The original idea came from an episode in a novel that was spotted by the young Ian Fleming. Haley believes that `Mincemeat succeeded because invention, the imagination, drove the intelligence. Sweet Tooth ...reversed the process and failed because intelligence tried to interfere with invention'. Haley points out that in `1943. The struggle was starker and more consequential than it is now'. Tom's comment is true for `The Innocent' set in a divided Berlin. `Sweet Tooth' is clever but it hasn't that `darkness' and `consequence' of McEwan's earlier novel. `Sweet Tooth' is Lemon Soufflé; `The Innocent' is Black Forrest Gateaux.

Stewart Robertson
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HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 17 September 2012
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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 July 2015
Nominally, this is an espionage novel tracing the career of narrator Serena Frome who joins - a rather chauvinistic - MI5 from university in the 1970s. It is far more, however, a novel about love, literature and the characters, even if there is a classic thriller type twist waiting for the reader at the end. Frome ends up running an agent who has been talented spotted as an author able to produce helpful propaganda and who, in his depiction as a young author, looks rather like a young Ian McEwan himself. Indeed McEwan has called the novel "a muted and distorted autobiography", although presumably the tale of how the author is recruited as an agent and then things start to go wrong is all fiction.

All very enjoyable.
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on 21 July 2013
Sweet Tooth takes us into the sleezy world of MI5 in the 1970s. Britain was in the throes of the three day week. The miners were on strike (they wanted a 35% pay rise!). PMs Ted Heath and Harold Wilson seemed interchangeable, grey old men who knew nothing of the real world. The Cold War was becoming tedious, the new war was being fought in Ulster, and it was coming to the streets of Britain's cities.

I was very young then, but I remember enough to be able to look back on this world as if it was another place. Grey, black, dark, depressing, is how it is in my mind, and how it is portrayed in this book. Our 'heroine' is Serena Frome, an apparently naïve, ambitious, pretty girl, who gets embroiled in an operation to fund writers (without their knowledge) to promote anti-communist views in their literature and so to do their bit, unwittingly, to preserve the values of the Old Guard, regardless of which Government happen to be in office. McEwan's list of reading at the end of the book shows that this is no invention, something as preposterous really did happen. Of course, Serena falls in love with her writer, and that gives her a bit a problem because how can you build a future when you can't tell your lover the truth about yourself, when in a sense, all that he knows of you is built on a lie, and that in addition, you're compromising his artistic integrity?

That's the story. What the book is about is a bit more difficult. Politics and parallels, this being McEwan, obviously. Deception - again, obviously, this is Ian McEwan, it's what he does. The twists and turns that we'll force our mind to take in order to make the world into the shape we want it to be, regardless of the fact that it's really another shape altogether, and that the person who's looking at it with us sees it in yet another form. It's about love, but McEwan's type of love, which is definitely not the romantic sort. It is romantic though, and there's even a romantic novelist playing a shady role in there too, though ultimately the romance is shown to be just as much window-dressing, deception, acting, as the entire relationship.

And of course, this being McEwan, all is absolutely not what it seems. I won't spoil it, but anyone who's read his books before would quite rightly be suspicious from the start. I was, though I didn't guess until close to the end. And that was my problem with the book.

That it's beautifully written goes without saying. That it's funny, dark, witty, of course - what I'd expect from one of my favourite authors. It's a compelling story. It draws you into the world and you keep turning the pages. I never quite believed in the female narrative, but there's a reason for that. I didn't like Serena much, but you weren't supposed to. I think the only likeable character was Shirley Shilling, the romantic novelist, and I'm not saying that to empathise, and even she, I was deeply suspicious of - again, I suspect I was meant to be. Nothing was as it seemed. That's the point of the book I think, and that's kind of what I didn't like about it (I mean the ending, not the book). Reading about deceit is one thing, being deceived is another. Like Atonement, I was left feeling cheated.

But it won't stop me coming back for more.
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on 24 August 2013
I am aware of McEwan's reputation as a quality writer, but probably made a mistake in reading this first!

It's a page-turner certainly, and I was sufficiently motivated to reach the end pretty quickly. I can certainly see that the writer has an admirable talent for narration, creating a mood and building suspense.

The problem for me was the plot. And the characters. The story is set in the early 1970's during the cold war, and concerns a young woman who is recruited to MI5 after graduating from Oxford. An excellent situation for a thrilling story of intrigue and danger, or so I thought. Sadly, I found the central character to be shallow and self-obsessed, and the same seemed to apply to virtually everyone else in the story as well. The plot itself seemed a bit thin, involving a botched plot to secretly fund a select group of writers whom MI5 thought would be useful in the propaganda was against the Soviet Union. The whole project seemed faintly ridiculous and, for an organisation that was clearly paranoid to the extent of being afraid of its own shadow, was carried out with little concern for detail or attention to security. The central character recruits a young writer and promptly embarks on a relationship with him, which seems to completely pass by her employer, who until then had been bugging her room and stalking her. What?!?!?

Predictably, the whole venture goes badly off the rails when the secret arrangement to fund the writer is leaked to the press just after the writer unexpectedly wins a major award for a short novel that failed to win the approval of the big cheeses in MI5 for its apparent criticism of capitalist society.

I found the story so clumsily structured, that it was painfully obvious from the moment the story broke in the press that the story had been leaked by one of the central character's colleagues, a spurned ex-boyfriend who was slightly senior to her in the organisation.

I found the story line so ridiculous in places, that I wondered if the book was intended to be a farce. It could easily have worked on that level, except that it wasn't funny. A disappointing introduction to McEwan's work for me, I am sure he has much better to offer.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 November 2012
As a rule, whenever I embark on reading an Ian McEwan I know that this hypnotic quality of his prose and the compeelling nature of his stories means that any plans for the next few days are likely to be trashed because of the inability to put his books down. This is the fifth novel of his that I have read and I felt not quite as engrossing as "Atonement" or "Enduring love" - the latter being, in my estimation , probably the best thriller I've read.

Although "Sweet Tooth" is billed as a spy story and the press coverage has highlighted that it deals with the low level degree of espionnage whereby British Intelligence is endeavouring to manipulate the cultural life of the UK in the early 1970's, the novel is primarily about books and writing more than anything else. Typically and in keeping with this author's love of consequences, McEwan primes the reader within the first few paragraphs that the principle character is going to come to some kind of grief. However, unlike "Atonement," "Saturday" or "Enduring love" the story continues in a very linear fashion to tell the tale of how Serena Frome is sent on a mission to cultivate a young novelist who MI5 think will offer a credible alternative to the surfit of Left wing culture that was then popular. This book charts the blossoming relationship that develops between the writer Tom Haley and is refracted not only through the vistas of the literary world but also to references to other writers and books as well. The book is written from the point of view of a female character and this took a lot of getting used to for me before I became comfortable with McEwan's concept. I felt that the book captured this era particularly well even if this is a novel that is not particularly full of incident.

Unlike the the books by Ian McEwan that I have read, this effort was not quite as engrossing and whilst the beauty of his writing is a given, I felt that the story really only picked up pace about 2/3rds the way through. Until the last chapter, I thought that the ending was going to be totally predictable but I would have to say that I felt the resolution of the novel was an unexpected masterstroke. The result may not be to every reader's test but , in my estimation, this is worthy of an extra star.
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on 1 November 2012
SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan
Maybe this started as a short story. Having said that Ian McEwan, is a brilliant writer. Although I did think, it got bogged down during parts of the last third of the book.
The book is set in the early sixties.During the height of the Cold War. Serena Frome (as in Frume) the main character, leaves Uni with qualifications in Maths. But her one passion, is English Lit. She takes a job with Mi5. Certainly nothing glamorous or daring about this job. She is employed as a copy typist, office clerk. Until she is asked to groom an upcoming local author, Tom Haley.
Mi5, under an annonymous organisation, will fund the author while he writes this book. The aim being as some sort of propaganda. In which the freedom and strengths of the Western world are reflected . To complicate things Serena falls in love with her author. In fact,throughout the novel, Serena seems to fall in love quite easily.
But for me, the book needed some sense of urgency. Perhaps of suspense as an added ingredient - maybe even danger.
Still it is an unusual and interesting story. One in which the characters remain in the mind for some time after .
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