The first rule of espionage is trust no one.
Sweet Tooth is the title of Ian McEwan’s latest novel. I was fortunate to obtain a copy of the European edition, long before (November 13th) the US edition will be published. Reading it is such great fun. And it doesn’t take a genius to detect that McEwan had a lot of fun in writing it.
The outline of the story can be told; anything more would spoil it for any future reader. It is a thriller, a spy thriller, layer upon layer of deception, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
McEwan unfolds the tale in a post 60s cold war climate in the voice of Serena Frome, the daughter of an Anglican bishop and his wife, living in a quiet town on the Dorset coast. She enrolls at Cambridge, graduates with a degree in mathematics, although she spends most of her time reading literature, a voracious reader to be sure.
She has several affairs along the way, most notably with a history professor, a former MI5 operative. Their days in his summer cottage are idylls of picnics, walks in the woods and culinary masterpieces. He and only he knows his days are numbered and he decides to groom her for the MI5. (There are two intelligence services in England. MI6 deals with foreign intelligence, while MI5 with domestic security.)
In time, he disappears and she applies for a job with the MI5, is accepted, and assigned to work on project code named Sweet Tooth. The task of this group is to recruit writers (“We don’t tell them what to think. We enable them to do their work.”). She is given the task of trying to enlist Tom Haley, a young writer of short fiction and academic essays.
She reads Haley’s fanciful, bizarre stories that McEwan has sprinkled throughout the novel. It is here where you know he is really having fun.
"I count those hours with his fiction as among the happiest in my time at Five. All my needs beyond the sexual met and merged: I was reading, I was doing it for a higher purpose that gave me professional pride, and I was soon to meet the author. Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage. I was pleased to have been chosen."
The MI5 senior staff agrees that he is worth supporting, whereupon he is given a generous yearly stipend to write whatever he wants, free of his academic responsibilities. They are hopeful he will write the kind of novel that will be sufficiently anti-communistic to justify the expense.
In due course, she falls in love with Haley who reciprocates the sentiment and they have some jolly times together. It is beyond here that I must stop. The tale gets complex, with much duplicity, concealment, and treachery, all the while terribly amusing.
But Sweet Tooth is really much more than a thrilling spy story. In many respects it is a novel about the experience of reading literature. Tom Haley comments, “I like life as I knew it recreated on the page….[but] it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks.”
It is also about the blurry line between fiction and reality, moral reasoning about espionage, and what many readers hope to gain from fiction. Serena says, “And I suppose in my mindless way, I was looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favorite old shoes.”
The last chapter is priceless, McEwan at his best. Reading Sweet Tooth is something to look forward to and, in time, no doubt to be seen on the screen at your local multiplex.
Footnote: In an interview, McEwan reports that in researching the novel, he went online and applied to join the MI5. He was then given a set of complex, technical questions that he struggled to answer (all online) and “within a tenth of a second” after they were submitted, he was informed he had been refused.