Tuesday, September 18, 2012

‘Sweet Tooth’ By Ian McEwan

Published by Random House
RRP $37.99
Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith

Confession.  I’ve only read one other Ian McEwan book ‘On Chesil Beach’.  I know, I know.   Although I did see the film ‘Atonement, so perhaps that’s almost two and now ‘Sweet Tooth’ makes it three.   So, I can’t say this is similar to, better than, or make a comparison.  All I do know is that I was in the hands of an accomplished writer, a clever narrator and I enjoyed the journey because it was a time and territory I knew – well, not MI5 exactly but the period in politics and that specific time in London.   1972, both Serena and I were there, she extraordinarily an undercover female agent with MI5, and me I was just a temp secretary.   But I knew her life in many ways, the money in the meter for the gas water heater, the squalid shared bedsit, the music, the London boroughs and the backdrop of IRA bomb scares on the London tube.
               And so as I read, I was imagining Serena my age now in this retelling and wondering at her tone of voice and why she took such a tone, almost glib in the early stages.   It felt like she had one raised eyebrow, her tongue somehow laced with cynical acuity, a witty and acerbic viewpoint.    But then the voice settled in as she sort of stumbles (of course she only thinks she stumbles) into a job with MI5 where her love of the novel and reading is put to good use.     Her assignment is to befriend an upcoming writer and the department through a fictitious arts funding agency, is to support this writer.  The idea being that by funding the ‘right’ writers, ideas become part of the cold war.   The writer, Tom Haley is naturally delighted and flattered to be offered this stipend (perfect – can you imagine a writer turning their nose up at flattery and a fabulous stipend...ouch)  
               Serena is a bit of a cipher for McEwan to flex his clever observations and research and to play with the reader about fiction and truth.   But I began to like her. “My needs were simple.  I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors.  I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them.”   He scored a direct hit there with me.  I liked this too when observing one of her older lovers.  “and there was something I’ve since noticed over the years – the mountain range that separates the naked from the clothed man.   Two men on one passport.”      And further on, as I settled into listening to Serena, she describes her reading habits – mostly modern stuff in paperbacks I bought from charity and second-hand shops in High Street... And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes.”   She’s begun reading Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, and Irish Murdoch but “their versions were too educated or too clever, or not quite lonely enough in the world to be me.  I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man”.   Hmm, indeed.
               And then, she and her friend Shirley both employed by MI5, go into a bar and slip onto the bar stools. “It was still something back then for two girls to assume a pub was as much theirs as any man’s and to drink at the bar...  The revolution had arrived and you could get away with it.  We pretended to take it for granted, but it was still a kick.   Elsewhere across the kingdom they would have taken us for whores, or treated us as though we were.”   I’d forgotten about this, how it was back then.
               McEwan enquires a lot into relationships and their physicality.   Serena is wondering about one of her superiors in MI5, Max who has just been away for a week with his fiancée and added to this there’s a spark between this superior and Serena.   “There was no gleam of new confidence in his eyes, or dark patches beneath them.... Was it just possible that they took separate rooms to save themselves for their wedding night?”   For a moment, I was thinking of ‘On Chesil Beach’.    I wasn’t entirely convinced by that novella and neither am I entirely sure that Serena’s views on her own sexual encounters are authentic to her character – but that doesn’t stop them being interesting or enjoyable.
               But mostly, this book is looking at fiction, how it is created, and of course how better than to have an undercover agent with MI5 as your undercover for this exploration?    Serena reads the short stories of Tom Haley and begins to fall for him.  The stories are really interesting and form part of the story within story of the greater story.   It’s not so much the political Left or Right, as fiction and the truth.  I rather liked the short stories of Tom Haley.  I was also intrigued by the references to George Orwell which sent me racing to Google.   The book by the way is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens.
               The ending.   Well, don’t you hate endings?   Wouldn’t it be great if novels never ended and you could just keep going back to a stack of books beside your bed as the mood took you and re-engage and delay that often disappointing, unsatisfying or sad ending.    By the last few pages, I think there are strong enough hints for the reader to work out what’s going on, but instead of feeling pleased that I had, I was just a wee bit grumpy with the author.   This is most definitely a writer’s kind of novel, it pokes a very accurate stick at vanity, awards, and the very way that writers acquire their material.        
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.    

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