Ian McEwan’s delicious new novel provides all the pleasures one has come to expect of him: pervasive intelligence, broad and deep knowledge, elegant prose, subtle wit and, by no means least, a singularly agreeable element of surprise. In “Sweet Tooth,” as elsewhere in McEwan’s fiction, things are not always what they seem to be, with the result that the reader is permitted to delight in the aforementioned pleasures while wondering all the while what, exactly, is going on.
Well, you will say after coasting happily through the first nine-tenths of the book, of course this is Serena Frome’s “(rhymes with plume)” story, as told by her. So far as I can determine, the choice of surname is purely coincidental, as in neither mood nor themes does “Sweet Tooth” bear any resemblance to Edith Wharton’s well-known novel “Ethan Frome”; indeed, for all her faults, Serena is a considerably more engaging and likable character than poor old Ethan, with his ruined face and frustrated love. But if this is indeed Serena’s story, the telling of it in time becomes part of the mystery, yet another manifestation of McEwan’s fascination with the ownership of narrative and the complicated relationship between imagination and intelligence.
Intelligence, that is, in the sense of espionage, information-gathering, dissembling and false clues. As the novel opens, Serena, the daughter of an Anglican bishop in a pleasant provincial city, has just concluded a mediocre career at Cambridge, where she “was considered something of a freak of nature — a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics” and, more than that, “a good-looking girl in a miniskirt, with blond hair curling past her shoulder blades.” The miniskirt is an important detail, because it sets the context: This is the early 1970s, with the Cold War still ominously active, Britain bogged down in the bloody conflict over Northern Ireland, workers of almost every imaginable sort angry and out on strike, London threatening to collapse into one vast slum, the empire gone and the arrogant United States on the rise. Serena studies only enough math to get by, preferring to occupy herself with an unsystematic reading of whatever novels she can get her hands on, and indulging in an affair with a fellow named Jeremy Mott, an affair that would have no consequence in her life except that Jeremy introduces her to his history tutor, Tony Canning, a man in his 50s:
“He was of the great and good, a type vaguely familiar to me. Men like him came to our house to visit the Bishop from time to time. They were annoying of course to anyone under twenty-five in that post-sixties period, but I rather liked them too. They could be charming, even witty, and the whiff they trailed of cigars and brandy made the world seem orderly and rich. They thought much of themselves, but they didn’t seem dishonest, and they had, or gave the impression they had, a strong sense of public service. They took their pleasures seriously (wine, food, fishing, bridge, etc.) and apparently some had fought an interesting war. I had memories of childhood Christmases when one or two of them would tip my sister and me a ten bob note. Let these men rule the world. There were others far worse.”
Soon she is having an affair with Canning, a discreet and quiet business conducted in his remote country cottage in the absence of his busy wife, an art dealer. Canning becomes her mentor as well as her lover, instructing her in history as seen through the eyes of England’s ruling gentlemen, history taught in the words of G.M. Trevelyan and Winston Churchill. Then, suddenly, he is gone, leaving her to keep an appointment for an interview with MI5, the British office of domestic intelligence. She is offered a job as a “junior assistant officer.” In “Civil Service rankings this was the lowest of the low,” limited to “filing, indexing and related library work,” and at first she is inclined to reject it, but then she decides “to take the job after all and have order and purpose in my life and some independence.” MI5 is strictly a man’s world, and her hopes of advancement are virtually nonexistent, but she takes a dreary room and complacently begins her new life.
Then, after a while on the job, things change. She is called into a meeting in the office of one of her superiors and asked a number of questions, the precise purpose of which only gradually becomes clear. The British Foreign Office has been keeping an eye on the CIA, which “has been backing its own highbrow notion of cultures since the end of the forties,” notably with its sub-rosa sponsorship of the literary magazine Encounter, the idea being “to try to lure left-of-center European intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective and make it intellectually respectable to speak up for the Free World.” Now MI5 proposes its own variation on the theme:
“We want to start afresh. Our idea is to concentrate on suitable young writers, academics and journalists mostly, people at the start of their careers, when they need financial support. Typically, they’ll have a book they want to write and need to take time off from a demanding job. And we thought it might be interesting to have a novelist on the list. . . .”
The one they have in mind is Thomas Haley, studying for a doctorate in literature at the University of Sussex, the author of a few published short stories and of what MI5 regards as “sound” journalism on subjects of current interest. They ask Serena to go to Brighton and check Haley out. “The sums are going to be attractive,” she is told. “We’ll channel funds through a cut-out, an existing Foundation. Not a huge or well-known outfit, but it’s one where we have some reliable contacts. If Haley or any of the others decides to check, it’ll stand up nicely. I’ll let you know its name as soon as it’s settled. Obviously, you’ll be the Foundation’s representative. They’ll let us know when letters come for you. And we’ll get you some of their headed paper.” The code name for the operation, she is told, is Sweet Tooth.
So off Serena goes to Brighton. Haley is skeptical at first, but he does indeed look into the foundation and comes away satisfied. Meanwhile Serena reads some of his stories — they are brilliantly summarized by McEwan, this brilliance having much to do with their being so McEwanesque — and comes away impressed: “I count those first hours with his fiction as among the happiest in my time at Five.” Tom accepts the stipend, and soon enough he and Serena are lovers, albeit lovers over whom hangs a cloud: Serena’s awareness that Tom does not know the full truth about her. The better she gets to know him, the more deeply she understands that to tell him all would be to end what has matured into not just an affair, but love: “He would hate me forever. I was over the cliff edge and could never get back. I could remind myself of the benefits I had brought into his life, the artistic freedom that came with me, but the fact was that if I was to go on seeing him, I would have to keep telling him these off-white lies.”
At this point you are on your own, for I decline to say another word about what transpires apart from noting that we are instructed, right toward the end, about the difference between intelligence and invention and given a superb lesson in how to distinguish between the two. We are also left to decide what happens now, for McEwan, no doubt with a sly smile, doesn’t tell us. For what little it is worth, I am quite sure that I know, and certain that the ending I have supplied is utterly, indubitably right.
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 304 pp. $26.95