Archive | October, 2012

Lucky I didn’t read Sweeth Tooth reviews..

9 Oct

A number of novelists can count themselves lucky that I read their latest offerings within a heartbeat of release. I tend to the deferential, almost fawning – and possibly mistily uncritical – appreciation of whatever they produce. Ian McEwan is one such. Sweet Tooth, his latest, was Amazon pre-ordered and the anticipation was delicious. What improbable, extraordinary event would reshape the lives of ordinary people? On what moment would this new novel turn? And how would it open? What quixotic character (s) or events would make the bizarre seem normal, probable even.

Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume) is the ‘heroine’ of this love story, set in the turbulent austerity of the early 70s –  Miners’ Strike, 3 day week, the Troubles, continuing Cold War, battered Ted Heath giving way to burnt-out Harold Wilson…and so on. Serena is looking back some 40 years as she gives us her potted CV in the characteristically engaging opening salvo of Chapter 1. The bookish child of a bishop, she dispenses with her upbringing as uneventful, save for the obvious signposts which, we know, Mcwan will pick up and run with later. The real story starts at Cambridge; it is this and her Maths degree (3rd) which sets her up as a square peg, a woman destined be a pawn in the games of others – mostly men.

Serena is recruited by an ageing don, Tony Canning with whom she spends a summer being indoctrinated into his view of most things, not merely sex, politics and philosophy. We know where the action is heading when Tony has secret meetings. Serena is being groomed for espionage. When her lover suddenly dumps her she needs a job and MI5 are on hand.

Now at this point the narrative had already taken me in a direction that said ‘This isn’t really going to be a spy novel, so don’t get your hopes up.’ With characteristic meticulous interweaving of character, plot-thread and, we suspect, a large dose of autobiography, McEwan pulls us compellingly down his own road of literary indulgence. Serena is charged with signing up an author, Tom Haley, who will, unwittingly, produce pro-Capitalist and certainly anti-Communist tales to sooth (or Sweet Tooth) a nation under cultural siege. That TH is a lecturer at Sussex; that we are encouraged to read a series of his shorts stories and novella plot; that Serena falls for this younger version of Canning…all this and more seems like Ian is revisiting his own literary genesis and enjoying the digression from what might otherwise have been a failed Le Carre lookalike. It isn’t and I never remotely thought it would be.

Unlike James Lasdun whose Guardian review at the end of August smacked of a man not fed his spy-catcher sweeties. He thought that Sweet Tooth promised the proper tensions of espionage and just didn’t deliver. I’m glad I didn’t read his disappointed words before tackling the novel. It’s hard to block out such an informed deconstruction but he’s wrong! The ending of the novel, rather than the beginning is the real McEwan deal. Self-indulgent, possibly, but I revelled in the neatness of the sting which Haley reveals in the long letter that concludes the story. This was intelligence outwitting espionage. This was cocking a snook at the cloak and dagger sound and fury of so much that characterised the intelligence services of the time. This was McEwan saying, ‘I can’t do the espionage stuff as well as Le Carre, so I didn’t try…I wrote my own thing, so there!’

And his own thing is that research-steeped knowingness of time and place and cultural context which he seems to blend so expertly with characters which are delineated, honed, perfected so that their decisions, successes and disasters are plasible, natural…ours. Will you enjoy this latest McEwan? Its last line gives such good advice: ‘Dearest Serena, it’s up to you.’

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