Author: Ian McEwan, 2012.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1970s Britain. Spy Fiction. Literary.
Other Details: Hardback. 320 pages.
Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere. Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ which brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one. - synopsis from UK publisher's website.
The first paragraph of this novel reveals that Serena's career with MI5 was a short one and ended in disgrace. Still knowing this did not spoil my pleasure of taking that journey with her and learning how these events came about.
The novel is clearly an homage to John le Carre, a writer who McEwan holds in high regard. It is the kind of spy novel that is peopled by the same kind of bureaucratic understated grey men of le Carre's novels, who seem a lot less dangerous than they actually can be. Ian Fleming's work for the intelligence service and his famous creation, James Bond, also gets a mention. The bibliography included at the back indicates some of the sources McEwan used to research the intelligence services of the 1970s and the cultural Cold War that generated projects much like Sweet Tooth of the title.
As with all of McEwan's novels I found this beautifully written, full of rich descriptions. The period detail was excellent and again served as a testimony to McEwan's skill as a writer. The narrative also includes a number of short stories written by Tom Haley, the budding writer cultivated by Serena. I won't say too much about the plot but there are some surprises to be had, which will either delight or annoy depending on your temperament. I was delighted and agree with the reviewer who described it as a "beautiful Russian doll of a novel".