I’ll make no bones about it, Sweet Tooth is probably Ian McEwan’s best book. It’s about espionage but that’s not really what it’s all about. It deals with the writer’s integrity.
The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), a bishop’s daughter who lands a job with MI5 and who recruits a writer, Tom Haley, without his knowing. The woman’s voice is totally believable. It‘s very rare to find a male writer who can express a woman’s mind so well.
The backdrop is spot on: the austerity of a grey and grim London in the early 1970s featuring barely heated offices and the three day working week, and women who have little chance of promotion in the secret service.
The book is a wonderful read. You can read it on the level of a story about the secret service who recruits writers for the good cause, an exciting story which is more about human relationships than espionage.
Because the deeper subject of this novel is the interplay between fiction and reality. You read about how reality ends up in the stories of a writer and how it is turned into fiction. McEwan plays games with illusion and reality; even Martin Amis makes an appearance.
Yet, it’s even more about a writer’s integrity. Whose is allowed to use the writer? One can look at the secret service as a metaphor for a coterie of influential people. Who is used by the writer? Are they the people closest to him? And how? These are the questions that matter to me as a writer, but they can also be of importance to readers interested in what really counts in life.
The twist at the end is brilliant: everything comes together. I must admit to feeling very moved when reading the last few pages.
Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is an important novel about the position of a writer, in relation to society, but especially in relation to his loved ones.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
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