I remember reading the first Ian McEwan when I was sixteen. I started with, “The Cement Garden” and the idea of a book where only young adults featured while the adults were on a vacation intrigued me and rightly so. The book did not disappoint a single bit and since then I have not stopped reading everything written by him.
Ian McEwan’s female characters have always been enigmatic and rather a mystery, that need to be known and revealed, one page at a time. Whether it is a confused young wife in “On Chesil Beach” or a couple torn between desire and experimentation in “The Comfort of Strangers” or an obsessed lover in, “Enduring Love”; no matter what the book or the plot, McEwan’s characters shine above their plots and come on their own in the books. That is why his books work and seem to connect with readers, or at least with me.
So when I got the opportunity to read his latest book, “Sweet Tooth”, I could not contain my excitement. Sweet Tooth promises everything to a reader that should be expected from a well-written book – the plot, the characterization, the story-telling prowess, the setting, the emotion, the drama, the adventure, intrigue and to end it with masterful strokes. There is not a word which is out of place in this book.
Sweet Tooth is set in the early seventies in England. The world was in turmoil and the Cold War was at its peak. Serena Frome is the cultured attractive daughter of an Anglican Bishop, and a dominating mother (sort of reminded me of Mrs. Bennett). She is coerced into studying Math at Cambridge, while she wanted to study literature. She continues to bury herself in books and the world of fiction, searching for the perfect romance. She falls in love with her boyfriend’s married tutor, Tony Canning. Tony prepares and grooms Serena for the intelligence service. There is more to their brief affair which I will not reveal here.
Serena manages to get through to the screening process for the British Intelligence Service and starts working for MI5 in a very junior position. She is keen to rise through the ranks and because of her knowledge of literature, is given her very first mission, called Sweet Tooth. MI5 have set up a cultural foundation to help writers who speak out against communism (essentially anti-Soviet) and she is to act as a representative of the foundation. Her job is to encourage a young writer called Tom Haley and fund him, allowing him to get into the fold and write full-time, without being aware that the funding is coming from MI5.
Serena undertakes the mission and as always there is a catch in the novel. She gets involved with Tom – emotionally, mentally and physically, giving the so-called relationship her all. From there on she is torn between undertaking and successfully seeing through the mission and being loyal to the one she loves. This in essence is the plot of the book.
The book in an overall sense is not really about spying. There are layers to it which are only known as each page is turn. Ian McEwan touches on topics that defined the 70s like no other era – sexual freedom, cultural values, the dawn of a new era (so to speak), feminism, sophistication, power cuts, political changes, terrorist threats, and mini-skirts. He writes about all of this and that is what makes the narrative gripping and real.
The crispiness of the prose is superlative. As a reader, I definitely did not feel burdened by the volume of the book, considering the pace in which the story went ahead. In fact, I loved the detailing. The elements that needed all the attention – the surroundings in the 70s, the spy association, the love-affair (doomed or not, I leave that to you to discover), and the friendships forged and betrayed.
Sweet Tooth, for me is Ian McEwan’s best work after On Chesil Beach. There are sub-plots and stories that grip you from the very start. The characters are all caught up in their own little turmoil, playing out as the script demands and seeking redemption, but it is not that easily given in the book.
McEwan knows how to structure his story and his characters speak for themselves. Serena and Tom are characters that will live on in the reader’s memory long after the book is over.
The reversals in the book are plenty and have the capacity to either shock or surprise. Sweet Tooth is a cleverly written book, with imaginative prose and a great twist at the end. A must read for all those who have not tried McEwan yet and for those who have read his works, you sure will not be disappointed.