This is an upper middle class tale set in 1970’s England. Serena Frome, the daughter of a bishop is recruited into MI5 directly from Cambridge University. She is groomed for the secret service by a former MI5 operative with whom she has an affair. Installed in a lowly position, life in the secret service doesn’t quite live up to Serena’s expectations. The Cold War has spread its chill and troubles in Northern Ireland are rumbling along. Serena’s office days are spent typing up memos and monotonous reports from field agents. Her nights are spent alone in her bedsit thumbing her way through paperback novels.
Life takes a more exciting turn when Serena falls in love. Unfortunately the object of her affection, Tom Haley, happens to be a writer whom Serena is sent undercover to recruit on a special mission called Sweet Tooth. The MI5 are engaging in cultural propaganda, covertly encouraging and supporting young writers such as Tom who are known to hold anti-communist views. Tom and Serena have a whirlwind romance, dining out and living extravagantly on Tom’s new salary provided, unbeknownst to him, by the MI5. As the relationship intensifies Serena lacks the courage to reveal her full identify and becomes increasingly petrified of Tom finding out, which of course he inevitably does.
Serena is foolish, vain and not very likable. She uses her flirtatious ways to influence her work colleagues and yet bemoans the fact that she’s judged to be just a pretty face, not to be trusted with a serious mission. Unfortunately her antics prove these negative assumptions to be correct.
There is a clever ruse in the final chapter that forces you to change how you view the novel, and could explain the thinner, more superficial style adopted by McEwan. It’s certainly quite different in tone and pace to other McEwan novels that echo or linger like On Chesil Beach or Atonement. But if your preference is for something lighter and less literary this story is lively and engaging. As McEwan novels go, this is not his best or most memorable. Nonetheless if you were to pick up Sweet Tooth as a spy novel ignoring the McEwan name and associated expectations it’s quite an enjoyable read.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is published by Random House.