Monday, 16 March 2015
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
I am conflicted about writing this review, because I am conflicted about the book. I am conflicted about the book, because I am conflicted about what I know of the author's other books, and how this fits in to his oeuvre. (I think I've read four other Ian McEwan book? Atonement, Saturday, The Cement Garden, and Enduring Love. Yup, four. No, wait. On Chesil Beach. Five.)
Let's go through the book, and see if I can explain why. But I can foreshadow with this. It's because, at the end, there's a literary trick. Which are not always my favourite thing, but in the case of one of his other books, I think really worked, because it touched an emotional core. The question here is, is the reason I don't like the trick in this case because it's a trick? Or because it's too similar to a literary trick he's used in the past? It's the kind of thing I think an author can get away with once. Going back to that well really bothers me, for reasons I can't quite articulate.
This book takes place in the early 1970s, in the small world of MI-5. Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is hired as one of their early flights of women, delegated mostly to secretarial tasks. She's hired, in part, because of her affair with a professor, who was himself connected to the intelligence world.
Serena's idealism tends towards the conservative, as she railed against Communism in a student newspaper, but it exists in tension with the world, in which her sister explores the counterculture, and her parents live the comfortable lives of an Anglican bishop and his wife.
Once in, Serena's taste for fiction is tapped by a small project trying to cultivate conservative literary voices, without appearing to do so publicly. Serena is a voracious but indiscriminate reader, and the sections describing how she read I enjoyed quite a lot. They tap a young author, and have her, through a foundation, offer him a comfortable yearly stipend so he can just write, no interference intended. (Although they hope that he will continue to write works that are skeptical of Communism and pro-capitalist West.)
Serena and the author, Thomas Haley, almost immediately embark on an affair, and Serena struggles with wanting to tell him the truth. There are secrets within secrets, and within MI-5, betrayals within betrayals. But most of the betrayals are tinged with the personal, even though they are supposed to be impersonal.
I enjoyed Sweet Tooth quite a lot, right up until the end. And even for that, it wasn't so much that there was a twist, it was that it was so similar to the twist at the end of Atonement. This is not the sort of literary trick you want to be known for, and if it worked in Atonement because there was a real emotional urgency towards wanting to give someone the ending they deserved, in this case, the emotional core is weaker, and I'm not sure it adds anything to the book to have it be revealed that it was actually "written" by one of the characters. It feels like knowledge that might have been best shared at the start of the book, instead of at the end, where it could flavour the whole thing, rather than be a "gotcha!" moment. Unfortunately, it feels more like the latter.
I am conflicted. Is it a good trick or isn't it? In this case, I'm falling closer to the latter. Unfortunately, that has somewhat soured Sweet Tooth, which was an enjoyable read.