Spies like us: Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' mines the human factor

Ian McEwan is sometimes lauded as the finest British novelist of his generation. It's an easy case to make: his books regularly figure in the hunt for esteemed literary prizes. Even better, his appeal extends beyond the stodgy literary set. Those picking up a McEwan novel should be prepared for a well-oiled plot, smart prose and even the occasional scene to make "Fifty Shades of Grey" fans blush. He's best known for his contemporary classic "Atonement" and his satiric, Man Booker Prize-winning "Amsterdam." Mr. McEwan's "Sweet Tooth" is another delicious work in his ample buffet of hits.


By Ian McEwan
Doubleday/Random House ($26.95).

"Sweet Tooth" is Mr. McEwan's first novel since 2001's "Atonement" to feature a female narrator. And like Briony Tallis in "Atonement," Serena Frome is a lover of literature, headstrong and very likely a bit too sure of her instincts.

Set in the early 1970s, the story involves the sly art of spycraft at the British internal intelligence division MI5. From the first page, however, it is readily apparent that covert operator Serena Frome is no James Bond. "Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover," she tells us in the novel's very first paragraph.

It's a bold writer who alerts the reader to the final car crash well before the key is put in the ignition, and Mr. McEwan completes the feat. The ride is a joy, and Mr. McEwan crafts a Rube Goldberg plot to bring this pending unraveling.

Project Sweet Tooth, the code name for Serena's assignment, is a lesson in soft power. Using a fake foundation, Serena and her colleagues offer covert financial support to up-and-coming writers likely to aid the anti-communist cause. Serena's mark is Tom Haley, an upstart journalist and academic who aspires to write serious fiction. In the process of signing him for Project Sweet Tooth, Serena also becomes Tom's lover.

Though set at the MI5, the book ultimately centers on lovers Serena and Tom, the spy and her mark. Mr. McEwan has confessed to a British interviewer that this novel is his "muted and distorted autobiography," and there are ample similarities between Mr. McEwan and Serena's fictional love interest. Just like Tom Haley, Mr. McEwan began his career with short stories, and the novel includes healthy excerpts of Tom's purported short fiction. "Sweet Tooth" even features cameos by real people, including author and McEwan friend Martin Amis.

In one telling exchange in the novel, the two main characters discuss the art of literary tricks. "I said I didn't like tricks, I liked life as I knew it re-created on the page," Serena remarks. Her lover Tom, on the other hand, believed that "it wasn't possible to re-create life on the page without tricks." Readers of "Atonement" or "Amsterdam" know which position Mr. McEwan takes in this debate, and he deploys a few literary devices in "Sweet Tooth," too.

Reading "Sweet Tooth" brought to mind the recent essay by Mr. McEwan about the power of fiction. There, he lauded fiction's "generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness."

That's some high-minded talk, and not the words I would use to sell fiction to my twenty-something friends. My pitch is more simple: Great fiction can change your perspective on the world. And every once in a while, a character will dance in your mind for days. One of those characters is Serena Frome.

With its female narrator and the twisting plot, "Sweet Tooth" is most reminiscent of Mr. McEwan's earlier "Atonement." Though I must admit that "Atonement" still ranks as my favorite McEwan work, this book has none of its smoky cloud of regret. Instead, this new offering is more upbeat, more sentimental and, dare I say it, a bit more sweet.

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Cody Corliss, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is a Pittsburgh lawyer (cody.corliss@gmail.com). First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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