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Onyx reviews: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

It is difficult to discuss Sweet Tooth without giving away the novel's biggest secret. Readers may wonder why so much is told about the early life of a vapid young woman named Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) as she progresses from an undistinguished university career into an equally unre­markable career with MI5, the British spy agency that is roughly equivalent to the FBI. Even her first major assignment seems tepid, hardly the stuff of John le Carré.

Telling her story in the first person from forty years in the future, even Serena admits that nothing exciting or interesting happened in the first eighteen years of her life, which is why the book starts when she is about to leave for college in the 1970s. The daughter of an Anglican bishop, she is a voracious reader, and her literary tastes are undiscerning. She has an aptitude for math, but little interest in pursuing it, even though her mother pressures her into studying it at Cambridge, where she performs poorly and attains a mediocre degree. 

However, through a series of anti-communist articles she wrote for the campus newspaper, she comes to the attention of a history professor, an older married man with whom she embarks on an affair. He prompts her to read more deeply about the important historical aspects of the nation and ultimately recommends her for a post at MI5 just before he vanishes without a trace after leaving her on the side of the road.

Despite her visions of intrigue and danger, she starts out at the spy agency doing mundane tasks. In a room full of women much like herself, she reads through stacks of dossiers and plucks out the names of people who should have intelligence files opened. It's glorified secretarial work at best. 

She soon becomes aware of the glass ceiling for women, especially those of her station. Many of her colleagues use their employment as a way of finding husbands. The opportunities for advancement are limited and her romantic liaisons with coworkers tend to backfire on her. She's attentive at departmental seminars and, on occasion, voices an opinion, but for the most part it's drab stuff.

Because of her fondness for reading, she is selected for a new program, codenamed Sweet Tooth, in which up-and-coming liberal-minded but pro-establishment authors are funded surreptitiously in the hopes that what they produce might turn out to be important or influential. Serena is to make contact with a promising author, a University of Sussex doctoral student named Tom Haley, using the guise of an employee of a made-up literary foundation, offer him a three-year fellowship and keep tabs on him from time to time. She is to encourage his work without influencing it. [This propaganda campaign, a "war of ideas" against the increasing popularity of literary radicalism and anti-western sentiment, has a basis in fact. The CIA reportedly funded literary journals and George Orwell's work was supposedly funded (without his knowledge) by spy agencies.]

Serena reads all of Haley's published stories and is intrigued by the way his mind works. Other than a few selected paragraphs, these stories are not printed verbatim but are instead synopsized by Serena, and interpreted by her as well. She believes she knows him intimately through reading his stories, so it doesn't take long for her to fall in love with Haley after they meet, which puts her in a delicate situation. She is forced to live a double life, because she can't betray MI5's tactics, which means she has to tell him a lie every day simply by not revealing the truth. On the plus side, her work with Haley is a qualified success: his book wins a prestigious literary prize and becomes a bestseller. It doesn't exactly hew to the pro-capitalist formula MI5 was seeking, though.

Much of this is merely window dressing, because McEwen has a different agenda with this book, one that only becomes clear in the final chapter. What he attempts is a neat trick, but the reveal comes so late in the game that it loses potency. Readers should want to go back to the beginning to see how he pulled it off, but few are likely to bother because Serena's story is so dull. The ending isn't a cheat, but the hints are far too subtle to allow most readers to figure out what's really going on.

The book has a few elements of the classic spy novel—eluding pursuit, suspicions that Serena's flat has been searched by the very agency she represents, safe houses, putative double agents and coded messages—and some nice flashbacks to the politics of England in the 1970s, but McEwan's interest is elsewhere, and it shows. When he claims that all writers are spies, he means something more literal than metaphorical.

Sweet Tooth is about storytelling and identity. It asks fundamental questions: How much can readers assume they know about someone based on their fiction? How far can a writer get inside the mind of a character they write? Tom Haley is a lot like his creator and the stories that Serena synopsizes bear strong similarities to some of McEwan's early works. Real-life characters from his literary circles make cameo appearances. There are discussions about what Serena likes and what she despises in fiction, and at the end she is the butt of her own least favorite joke.

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