Sweet Tooth has all the ingredients of a great story. A beautiful Cambridge undergraduate “with blonde hair curling past her shoulder blades”. A don with a haunted past. A promising novelist. MI5. Love, sex, intrigue and betrayal. Safe houses, Watchers, Honey Traps, Cold Warriors, Russians, CIA… In the hands of a talented novelist like Ian McEwan, these elements ought to have produced another winner, as good as Atonement.
Sadly, Sweet Tooth does not come anywhere near it. This is not because Mr McEwan’s ability has failed him. On the contrary, his talent for restrained drama and ability to build suspense keep you turning the pages. The problem with Sweet Tooth is that it has an unconvincing plot embedded in clichéd atmospherics.
The story is about Serema Frome (“rhymes with plume”), daughter of an Anglican Bishop, who is groomed for the intelligence services while reading Math at Cambridge. Her mentor is a married history don with whom she has an affair, conducted in a secret country cottage where he introduces her to the joys of high literature (she has the gift of speed reading), opera and politics. Then she is recruited by MI5, and consigned to the purgatory of Registry, the critical but cumbersome filing system that served Five’s desk officers and analysts.
Her first assignment (Operation Sweet Tooth) is a low-level one, to assess and recruit Tom Haley, a young academic who shows some promise as a novelist, to an MI5-funded writers’ foundation. This is part of Five’s efforts to emulate the exercises in intellectual suborning as practised by the CIA (with a light hand) and the KGB (with a rather heavier one).
If it takes the reader more than 80 pages to reach this point and 174 pages for the real action to begin, it is only because Mr McEwan takes his time setting the scene. In any event, there is little cause for complaint here because of the authenticity with which Mr McEwan recreates the seventies, the backdrop against which the book is set. Indeed, if the book is worth reading at all, it is for these descriptions alone.
The year is 1971. The post-war boom of the fifties and sixties has given way to the oil shock, stagflation, industrial unrest, IRA terrorism (“the troubles”, as they were known as the time), and the youth counter-culture and feminism are in full bloom. Here, for instance, is Serena walking down Carnaby Street, the epicentre of London’s hippie culture. She is assailed by “whining guitar music and the scent of patchouli from a basement shop” and “ranks of ‘psychedelic’ and Sargent Pepper-ish tasseled military suits hung on long racks on the pavement”. When she approaches the University of Sussex for her first meeting with Haley, then one of the younger, braver rivals to the conservative Oxbridge institutions, she hears the “rasping, heavy flute of Jethro Tull”.
Oddly, little of this has anything to do with the actual story-line, except to provide a dramatic backdrop for it. There’s a younger sister who becomes a drug addict and has an abortion, but that’s just a long diversion to explain why Serena’s mother was unable to devote much attention to her quietly wayward older daughter’s career.
Instead, Mr McEwan culls out a slightly incredulous story set against the wholly authentic tensions between MI5 and MI6 over who had responsibility for handling Northern Ireland. It was a rivalry that often did produce absurd outcomes like the Sweet Tooth operation. In this, Mr McEwan has paid due obeisance to Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 as a source, but had he read him more closely he would have realised that the basis of his plot is weak.
Serena is recruited to MI5 despite being an indifferent student with middling political views and, most importantly, the lover of a don who turned out to be working for the Russians, a fact her recruiters knew. Her recruitment is quite improbable if only because the reverberations from the defections of Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess were still being felt both on Oxbridge campuses and in the intelligence services.
Of course, Mr McEwan may be taking a novelist’s licence with reality, but his tremulous prose does nothing to help things. If anything, Sweet Tooth could qualify for the 2012 Bad Sex Awards and may beat the Fifty Shades sagas handily. Here is an excerpt from Serena’s account of her first night with Haley. Among other things, she’d “almost forgotten the sensation, hot and electric and piercing, spreading up to the base of my throat and right down to my perineum”. In another place, an orgasm is described as “the glorious summit”.
There’s a twist to the story, of course, but nothing that makes you long for a sequel. All in all, Sweet Tooth is a perfect accompaniment for a long plane ride — easily read and quickly forgotten.
323 pages; £13.99