This is my review of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.
"My name is Serena Frome….and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months…I was sacked having disgraced myself and ruined my lover."
These opening sentences hooked me, although I might have preferred not to know all this information in advance. Then, I found myself trying to engage with Serena as I waded through page after page of dense description of the "telling" variety, in the voice of a sixty-something, upper middle-class woman looking back to her early life with a somewhat cold objectivity as if writing about someone else – a voice which I did not find quite convincing (an interesting point to debate when you have finished the book). Small things bothered me, such as the way Serena always referred to her father as "the Bishop", or did not bother to go to one of his services during a visit home at Christmas. Surely even an atheist daughter would make it to a carol service for old times' sake? Or her parents would have had something to say?
I kept reading only because the writer is the celebrated Ian McEwan, and being about the same age as him and Serena it was interesting to be reminded of the political and social ferment of the `70s which I did not fully appreciate at the time, so I wonder how much Serena's lists of events and comments on them mean to younger readers.
This novel seems to fall between three stools. Presented as some kind of spy thriller, it proves somewhat low key and unexciting. This could be realistic in that a young woman in the MI5 of the 70s was likely to be given only mundane tasks, but does not make for a great read. As a sometimes polemical take on the life and times of the 1970s, this novel might have made more impact as a series of Jonathan Raban type essays. It may succeed best as being in fact another sort of novel altogether about the art of writing. In this respect, Serena's analysis of her lover's ingenious short stories provides one of the most interesting aspects of the novel, although I felt no doubt unintentionally patronised by the suggestion that someone like Serena who loves reading but has never studied English may be impeded by not knowing how to "read" a challenging text.
The final twist may redeem the book a little, but I did not find "Sweet Tooth" as original as say "Enduring Love" nor as well-constructed as " The Innocent".