Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Let me say straight off that I can understand why Philip Hensher got so uptight about the extension of the Booker Prize to include American authors when I read this latest offering from Ian McEwan if we are to take it as representing the acme of British literature.  Hensher finds it 'hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate' the new look Booker.   Never mind that he claims that it is understood that 'the Booker is a recommendation about the British or Commonwealth novel'.  John Banville and Roddy Doyle inter alia will be delighted to read that!    [Read more]

Sweet Tooth is not the kind of spy thriller that has you on the edge of your seat, indeed it is at times tedious and neither particularly 'acute' nor 'witty' - as claimed on the dust jacket - relying totally on an Atonement-like conceit in the final 22 pages [and you will have read 348 pp to get there!].    On the way, one gathers a lot of McEwan opinions on literature not least his railing against postmodernism when his protagonist avers  “I wasn’t impressed by those writers . . . who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions. . . . I believed that writers were paid to pretend.” McEwan then goes on to gainsay this and write himself extensively into the narrative.   One of the two main characters, a writer, Tom Haley, is clearly a poorly cloaked version of McEwan himself and his previous stories are rehashes of McEwan's books.

The narrative, set in the late sixties and early seventies, concerns a beautiful young woman, Serena Frome, a bishop's daughter, who goes up to Cambridge to read Mathematics.   She eschews the counterculture of the time finding cannabis boring and dislikes rock music but is, nevertheless, rather taken with the sexual liberty of the period which she samples liberally before falling into an affair with her considerably older history tutor.   Surprise, surprise, this being the sixties and Cambridge, this tutor recruits her to MI5 following her graduation with a poor third.

Serena's one passion is reading and she is an eclectic reader, anything from Valley of the Dolls to Jane Austen until she becomes totally captivated by Solzhenitsyn, a champion of liberty.   Rather curious, as the mission she takes on in MI5 is to recruit an author that is felt could champion the MI5 led capitalist philosophy of the west.  Tom Haley is the target, a lecturer in English in the University of Sussex who would be offered funds through a front, an existing Foundation, sufficient to allow him to write rather than lecture for a year or two.   These were the pre-electronic social media days when books really mattered and when the CIA and MI5 believed that encouraging the 'right sort' to write would have an effect.   Serena meets Tom and promptly falls in love.   All rather straightforward and a long way from the typical Cold War thriller and John Le Carre.  Probably the most crucial thing that concerns Serena is how she can continue in a serious relationship with Tom while still  concealing that he was targeted by MI5.  In the meantime, she gets by consuming quantities of Chablis and oysters.  As I have said, the book hangs on a conceit and I am not enough of a spoil sport to let that out.

There are good pieces that McEwan does well such as the period details particularly how women were treated in the workplace.   Though our heroine, Serena, only has a third, most of the women she works with in MI5 are first class honours graduates who, nevertheless, are treated almost as filing clerks and the glass ceiling at the time was very very low.   He also captures the atmosphere of the revolutionary counter culture of the time in the universities [well, he was a student at the same time!] using as a vehicle, Serena's sister, who is a hippie. 

I think the correct comment is 'could do better'!

A good book to read in hospital or on a plane to Australia!

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