We have come to a point in history where a novel far from the shores of modernism is a rare, but welcome relief. McEwan’s new story is a spy novel and love story set in the social and political turmoil of the early 70s. It tells the cultural story of the Cold War; intelligence agencies are keen to support ‘Western values’ and MI5 are setting up schemes to support writers and academics.
Serena Frome, a maths student at Cambridge University is groomed for MI5 by the much older history professor with whom she is having an affair and sent to Sussex to propose an offer to writer Tom Haley. Sweet Tooth, luckily, is not just the uninspiring name of the novel. But when Serena begins to fall for Haley, their relationship gets too twisted for her to reveal her true identity and what follows is a tale of love, lies, deception and the seedy tumultuous years of the 70s when the country went through five states of emergency.
Undeniable though is the clichéd element of McEwan’s new story, after simple, and at times, cringey descriptions of ‘Saturday markets’ and visits to ‘the usual coffee shop’. McEwan’s attempt at a blow-out ending unfortunately falls massively short and does put a bit of a dampener on what was an otherwise quite entertaining read.
More interesting though is McEwan’s involvement with his two protagonists. Whilst he admits he fell in love with Serena himself when writing, he also uses Tom Haley as an outlet for his own short-story writing in the 70s, much of Haley’s writing an adaptation of previously unseen work of McEwan’s. Sweet Tooth therefore, draws heavily on McEwan’s past and will be fascinating to anyone interested in his time at Sussex University; ultimately McEwan rewrites his own history through Haley.
Sweet Tooth is available now from Jonathan Cape.
words: Callie White