His early stories and novels were all cool posts perversity, a high-end parade of deadpan macabre and kink and sideshow eccentricity: ghastly death, corpses and butchery, bestiality, incest and pedophilia, insanity, dwarves. What Serena really enjoys is reading fiction. I wanted characters I could believe in. Our parents had the war to be boring about. We had this. Organizing an undercover operation code-named Sweet Tooth, this fictional MI5 contrives to pay long-term stipends, through a front foundation, to 10 up-and-coming writers.

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A reliable pleasure in Ian McEwan's work has always been the brilliance of his openings. Whether he's aiming for the big set-piece, as in the ballooning scene of Enduring Love , or something more like the casual stealth of the couple's afternoon awakening in The Comfort of Strangers , his tales cast their spells quickly and irresistibly. One reads him, of course, with the expectation of a story in which something terrible will occur, and that expectation is now a part of the alchemy.

Fraught questions begin seething almost immediately in the reader's mind. Who is going to be harmed? Will the harm be emotional, physical, or both? In what richly inventive ways will the setting — Dorset coast, south of France wilderness — facilitate the inevitable crisis?

And what kinds of meaning are going to be implicated in it? The new novel, Sweet Tooth , is no exception. Set mostly in London during the early 70s, it is told in hindsight from the present day by Serena Frome, a bishop's daughter brought up in the genteel "walled garden" of a cathedral precinct.

We learn in the first paragraph that she was sent on a secret mission 40 years ago, and that it ended badly for her and her lover. A history tutor at Cambridge — an older man named Canning, who has a mysterious scar — recruits her, first as his mistress, then as a spy for MI5.

But no: Canning dumps Serena with sudden and to her inexplicable cruelty, disappearing out of the story for a long time, and as Serena takes up her career at MI5 other themes emerge. An office intrigue starts up, bringing the subject of sexual politics into play the pervasive condescension of men towards women in that not-so-long-ago era is reconstructed with painful accuracy.

Meanwhile, frequent allusions to the eastern bloc keep the topic of totalitarianism firmly in view, and as Serena begins to demonstrate some totalitarian instincts of her own she opens a file on a headmaster who attended a meeting of his local Communist party , it looks as if some kind of study in east-west political symmetries might be afoot.

Then again, a mysteriously moved bookmark in Serena's room tilts the story towards something more paranoid: is the young spy being spied on? With all these possibilities in the air, it seems certain that the mission, one way or another, will be intricately bound up with the more significant conflicts of that discordant era.

When Serena is finally summoned to the fifth floor, we accompany her with serious interest and suspense. It comes as a surprise — amusing but faintly disconcerting — that one of the first things the five men waiting up there ask her to do is to rank the novelists William Golding , Kingsley Amis and David Storey in order of merit.

Serena's bookishness, it turns out, is what interests them. Their project is to co-opt some writers of a leftish but non-communist bent, with a view to influencing the British intelligentsia away from its increasingly anti-western bias.

They have some journalists and academics already lined up, and now they've decided they need a novelist. The plan is for Serena to pose as the representative of a cultural foundation with money to bestow, and reel in some promising newcomer.

The person they have in mind is a PhD student at Sussex who has published some well-received short stories, along with some articles criticising the Soviet bloc. One resists, slightly, the literary turn. But as Serena begins reading the writer's stories, summarising them at length in her own text, it begins to look, unexpectedly, as if the book's real subject is in fact going to be its own navel, or at least its own author.

The young writer's name is Tom Haley, but aside one assumes from the compromising entanglement with an MI5 operative, it might as well be Ian McEwan. The career itself, from Sussex graduate to prize-winning young Cape novelist, bears a close resemblance to McEwan's own. It's unclear to me exactly what McEwan is after with this abrupt swerve into self-reflexiveness. Sometimes he seems to be enjoying the trip down memory lane purely for its own sake, sketching his old pals and their hangouts with nostalgic affection.

Sometimes he seems interested in using the relationship between spy and author as a metaphor for the intricate dance of concealment and trust that goes on between a reader and a writer. Like Henry Perowne in Saturday , Serena strongly dislikes novels that play games with their readers — "no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art", she declares; "no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary" — so there's an elaborate joke at her expense but to what end?

Depending on your tastes, you may find these recursive twists and turns delicious. But those questions don't in any plausible way substitute for the earlier, more momentous political questions. No doubt it's callow to hold a writer to his word, or his implied word, but after that scene on the fifth floor I couldn't help feeling like Echo in the myth when Narcissus catches sight of himself in the pool. What about the PLO? The cold war? Civilisation and barbarity?

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It deals with the experiences of its protagonist, Serena Frome, during the early s. After graduating from Cambridge she is recruited by MI5 , and becomes involved in a covert program to combat communism by infiltrating the intellectual world. When she becomes romantically involved with her mark, complications ensue. McEwan wanted to write a novel dealing with the social turmoil of the s, and Sweet Tooth is to a large extent based on his own life.


Sweet Tooth

Why do you believe that the author chose to set a contemporary novel in the England of the s during the lingering Cold War? What contemporary or otherwise timeless themes is McEwan able to treat by adopting this political-historical backdrop? McEwan chooses to employ a female protagonist. Is she convincing? What surprises you about her character?

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