Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (Vintage)
by Patrick O’Connor
ACCLAIMED British author Ian McEwan delves into the world of espionage with Sweet Tooth but this is not the world of James Bond but a more mundane, everyday spy story, set in 1970s England.
The central character is ex-Cambridge maths student and bishop’s daughter Serena Frome, who is recruited to M15 after a relationship with her married, middle-aged lover Tony Canning, a don at the university.
For a while, Serena is stuck in a boring, secretarial role (many of her female colleagues have first class degrees but are treated with indifference by the men in charge) until she is given her big chance with a covert operation called Sweet Tooth.
The fear is that Britain could be contaminated by left-wing propaganda during the Cold War era so Sweet Tooth is set up to offer financial help to young writers with perceived anti-Communist leanings. This is a time of great unrest with striking miners, an energy crisis and conflict in Northern Ireland, and the author splendidly captures the feeling of paranoia.
Despite a background in maths, Serena is an avid reader of fiction so is tasked with recruiting up-and-coming writer Thomas Haley to the project.
What follows is a love story, seemingly doomed from the beginning because it it based on deceit, with Haley unaware that Serena’s ardent praise of his literary talents is actually being fostered by M15.
As Serena falls deeper in love, her dilemma increases. How can she tell Haley the truth without destroying their relationship?
What makes this novel so beguiling is that master-story teller McEwan then throws in some teasing twists, including the speculation that Serena’s first lover Canning may well have been a double-agent.
McEwan wrote the 2001 gem Atonement, later made into an Oscar and Bafta nominated film and I think that, in the right hands, Sweet Tooth could also make a successful transition to the big screen.