I approached this novel with some trepidation because I prefer some of McEwan’s books more than others. But I enjoyed this book. Clever and ultimately satisfying on many levels, Sweet Tooth evokes the world of the late sixties and early seventies with poignant accuracy; those memories are especially poignant for those who remember “the general excitement in the air in 1969” (2) who themselves lunched in Berkeley Square, and who had to live through the chilly, three day week in 1974, readers very much of an age with McEwan himself and with Serena the voracious reader whose love affair with a professor leads her to join MI5.
As a member of the intelligence service, Serena enters a world of half-truths and secrets, a world of lies and shadows, where even colleagues and friends cannot be trusted, and she herself is required to mislead the writer who becomes her lover. She must live a double life. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the novel raises questions about love and loyalty, truth and untruth. Who is to be trusted? What can we believe? Serena herself is presented sympathetically and recognisably as a young woman of her time and class: the grammar school girl who makes it to Cambridge, the provincial who moves to London, a naïf who aspires to sophistication, the romantic who allows herself to be manipulated because it was her “duty to honour the memory of the man . . .[she] had loved” (52). She is sympathetic and therefore we tend to believe what we believe she is telling us. But Serena is also often mistaken or misled. She has to rethink her situation. Even the stories that Tom writes are about deceptions, lies, misunderstandings, misreading of situations. So while the setting of Sweet tooth allows for some critique of the political stalemates and instabilities of British policy in the early seventies and highlights the still strong gender and class inequalities of the time, at its core it is a novel about reading and writing, about the very construction of and response to fiction.
McEwan deftly manipulates his readers’ expectations. Serena apparently “gauge[s] the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with . . .[her] own impressions or improved upon them” (66). As I said earlier, in terms of its settings, Sweet Tooth is recognisable. Dare one say real? One believes that McEwan has the world of MI5 just right. After all, he acknowledges David Cornwell’s “irresistible reminiscences” (323). Presumably, therefore, Serena would be satisfied that McEwan does indeed “make use of the real world. . .to give plausibility” (66) to his creation. We accept what we read for what we believe it to be. As Serena apparently does.
But the book’s ending forces me to re-evaluate everything I have read so far, to go back to the beginning and think again. As a well-realised character in a realist novel Serena appears to be revealed as a victim of her circumstances, her time, her gender, her inexperience. She is manipulated first by her mother under whose “conventional exterior was the hardy little seed of a feminist” (3) and then primarily by the men in her life: Tony, Max, and others senior to her in MI5. The men construct their own fictions around and about her. At least so she appears to tell us, but we discover that we cannot necessarily accept that what we’ve been told is precisely Serena’s own view of things.
We are told Serena wanted writers with “no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary” (66). Not even when he gives Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton minor parts in his narrative would I accuse McEwan of “tricksy haggling” or “disloyalty.” Rather, I would say that McEwan invites us to join in the game of reading. He might be something of a prankster in the way he ends his novel—he doesn’t so much mislead as allow the reader to misdirect herself, to be caught up in the “reality” of a fiction and to forget that novels are constructs—but he doesn’t cheat. After all, the novel is his creation, his invention.
Comparing the failure of Sweet Tooth MI5’s operation with the success of the much earlier Operation Mincemeat, Tom asserts that “Mincemeat succeeded because invention, the imagination, drove the intelligence. . . . Sweet Tooth, that precursor of decay, reversed the process and failed because intelligence tried to interfere with invention” (318). Sweet Tooth wittily and sympathetically affirms the power of invention and imagination, the power of fiction.