Friday, December 15, 2017
Books

Review: Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' an intriguing story of espionage, romance

WWhat could be a better match — Ian McEwan and a spy story? The English writer is a thinking person's bestseller, whose intelligent, tightly plotted novels, narrated in careful prose, address the pressing social and political issues of our days. And whether in fictions set in the last century (Atonement, On Chesil Beach) or contemporary morality tales (Saturday, Solar), McEwan's characters are never far away from the possibility of violence and the threat of deceit.

McEwan's new novel, Sweet Tooth, takes place against a vivid 1970s England unraveling with strikes and fuel shortages, in the murky corridors of the British intelligence agency MI5. Anyone who has seen the recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will have the right images to draw on — dim lighting, mustard-colored jackets, rooms full of smoke — as McEwan's hero, Serena Frome, takes a lowly post in MI5's shabby offices shortly after graduating from Cambridge.

Serena's ambitions are unformed, and her ideology is largely borrowed (from a Cambridge history professor with whom she had an affair, and the Times' editorials), yet not too far into her dreary secretarial tenure, via a flirtation with a colleague named Max, she is invited to join a new, higher-level program.

Code-named Sweet Tooth, the project will surreptitiously fund English writers who appear to have the right sort of sympathies. The goal is to "lure left-of-center European intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective and make it intellectually respectable to speak up for the Free World."

In explaining the project's background to Serena (and incidentally the reader), Serena's boss refers to actual episodes, such as the British Foreign Office's collaborations with George Orwell and the CIA-funded literary magazine Encounter, whose editor, Stephen Spender, resigned when the funding source was revealed. Later in the novel we learn about Mincemeat, an elaborate World War II operation given shape by a young British naval officer named Ian Fleming.

As in many good spy stories, romance soon enters into the action, as Serena is assigned a brilliant, handsome young writer named Tom Haley to recruit, without his knowing, into Sweet Tooth. Reading his dark, complex stories, whose plots McEwan lays out in detail, Serena is seduced — by Haley's fiction.

But the line between the writer and his work blurs, as does Serena's judgment of her professional risk, for from her first encounter with Haley in Brighton, where he has been teaching at Sussex University, her attraction to Tom is intense — and mutual.

The romantic relationship recounted brings us back to earlier McEwan tales of young couples' sexual discoveries of one another, and the simple, intense pleasures of courtship and consummation. Brighton of the 1970s is re-created in affectionate detail, as are the hopes and doubts of a young writer finding his way. Serena and Tom's evolving intimacy takes place against the background of Tom's burgeoning career.

For the experienced McEwan reader, in addition to the suspense created by the plot — how long can Serena keep her real work a secret? What is the story behind the death of her Cambridge lover? — there is the titillated registering of parallels between Haley's biography and McEwan's own.

This is signaled early on, when Haley's stories, like those of In Between the Sheets (1978), include a tale of a female writer's relationship with an ape, and a father-daughter drama in postapocalyptic London. With a nice irony, McEwan gives us Serena's dismissal of the ape story: "Beyond the strained and ludicrous matter of cross-species sex, I instinctively distrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet."

In this sort of comment, and as Haley goes on to befriend renowned literary critic Ian Hamilton, sharing drinks with him in Soho's famous pub the Pillars of Hercules, it is hard not to see McEwan as gently lampooning his earlier self and work. From a scene with Tom reading alongside a hilarious Martin Amis (Tom subsequently subdues the raucous crowd with his own grim, humorless tale) to in-jokes about the Booker Prize (one of whose recent judges, Stella Rimington, was the retired director general of MI5), Sweet Tooth is clearly as much, if not more, an account of the London literary world as it is one of British espionage.

Nor will anyone familiar with Atonement, for example, be shocked by this novel's various narrative twists, which a reviewer would reveal at her peril. Suffice it to say that at the heart of Sweet Tooth, as of so much of McEwan's work, is an interest in the nature of identity, and of truth.

If the novel's end seems a little too tidy, and Serena's voice not always convincing — she is the daughter of a bishop, but her sensibility rarely reflects the deep imprint of a religious upbringing — Sweet Tooth is nonetheless a more-than-nourishing tale set in the last decade of the Cold War, when male bosses got away with appalling sexism, you could still smoke at work, and George Smiley was given his last job.

Comments
Adam Savage’s ‘Brain Candy Live!’ at the Straz Center: Canceled

Adam Savage’s ‘Brain Candy Live!’ at the Straz Center: Canceled

Looks like the idea of Brain Candy Live! returning to Tampa Bay in 2018 turned out to be a myth.The interactive science spectacular, co-hosted by MythBusters' Adam Savage, has canceled its upcoming North American tour, including a May 5 event at the ...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Salma HayekSalma Hayek has spoken out against Harvey Weinstein, calling the producer a "monster" who threatened her career and her life after she reportedly denied his sexual advances. Hayek said working with Weinstein on the film Frida was like "goi...
Updated: 8 hours ago
What to watch this weekend: ‘A Christmas Story Live,’ Star Wars movie marathon, Hollywood Christmas Parade

What to watch this weekend: ‘A Christmas Story Live,’ Star Wars movie marathon, Hollywood Christmas Parade

OH, FUDGE! A CHRISTMAS STORY LIVE!The trend of live musicals broadcast on television isn't slowing down anytime soon, and A Christmas Story Live! — based on the classic holiday movie and Broadway musical — was ripe for the next taking. Fo...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Harry Potter’s Nymphadora Tonks, Natalia Tena, joins A Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

Harry Potter’s Nymphadora Tonks, Natalia Tena, joins A Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

The bubble gum pink-haired, shape-shifting witch Nymphadora Tonks from the last four Harry Potter films is headed to A Celebration of Harry Potter next month.Natalia Tena marks her first appearance at the annual wizarding world celebration Jan. 26-28...
Published: 12/14/17
Kids’ books a popular read at meteorologist Ginger Zee’s home

Kids’ books a popular read at meteorologist Ginger Zee’s home

NightstandGinger ZeeZee, 36, is the chief meteorologist at ABC News. In her newly released memoir, Natural Disaster: I Cover Them, I Am One, the Rockford, Mich., native details her multiyear struggle with depression and her life in the limelight. "It...
Published: 12/14/17
Notable: 50 years ago

Notable: 50 years ago

Notable50 years agoThese three books document some of the events of the cultural watershed that was 1967.Ali: A Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Jonathan Eig is the first complete biography of boxing icon Muhammad Ali, who in 1967 refused to be dr...
Published: 12/14/17
Review: Kevin Young gives readers the truth about ‘Bunk’

Review: Kevin Young gives readers the truth about ‘Bunk’

We live in the age of the hoax.Believe me.And if you don’t believe me, believe Kevin Young, author of the sometimes disturbing but always fascinating new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.In it, Yo...
Published: 12/14/17
Uber Eats is delivering 'free' chicken McNuggets across Tampa Bay

Uber Eats is delivering 'free' chicken McNuggets across Tampa Bay

You'll still have to pay the delivery fee, but the 10-piece McNuggets are free.
Published: 12/13/17
What to watch this week: New season of ‘The Librarians,’ Gwen Stefani’s Christmas special

What to watch this week: New season of ‘The Librarians,’ Gwen Stefani’s Christmas special

MondaySEASON FINALE: The Gifted, 9 p.m., Fox: The team at Mutant HQ is divided on what to do next after Jace is forced to hand over something valuable to Dr. Campbell.Disney's Fairytale Weddings: Holiday Magic, 8 p.m., Freeform: A behind-the-scenes l...
Published: 12/11/17
This week’s pop culture winners and losers: Tonya Harding edition

This week’s pop culture winners and losers: Tonya Harding edition

WINNERS: Tonya Harding The once disgraced Olympic figure skater is no longer on thin ice in the pop culture world. Harding joined Margot Robbie, who is playing her in the upcoming film I, Tonya, on the red carpet this week. While Harding pleaded g...
Published: 12/08/17