The last book for spy week is Sweet Tooth, written allegedly by Ian McEwan. It may be that reading so much about espionage has given me a conspiracy complex, but I was tempted to ring up the publisher and say ‘What have you done with Ian McEwan and who is this strange imposter?’ It’s just that the novel was so….cheery. And playful. Nothing dreadful happened in it, unless we count the early 70s in the UK. You wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anybody, and this from the man who used to bring us butchery, bestiality, incest and dwarves!
Well, anyway. Serena Frome (pronounced to rhyme with ‘plume’) is an extremely attractive good girl swot, daughter of a gentle Anglican vicar and a rather bossy mother, who happens to be quite good at maths and likes reading. Her mother persuades her that it’s her duty as a woman to take on a challenging male subject at university and so Serena goes off to Cambridge and gets herself a deplorable third class degree. But all is not lost. The reading has continued apace, leading to a brief stint as a book critic on a student rag. She loses the job when her head is turned by Solzhenitsyn (who she discovers right after reading Ian Fleming) and for a few heady weeks she fills her column with serious political outrage rather than the fluffy chat she was commissioned to write. But in turn, this brings her to the attention of a middle-aged history don with whom she has a rather beautifully described affair, and who grooms her for the Secret Service.
Like Emma Bovary before her (and what would have happened to her if Solzhenitsyn had turned out to be the literary squeeze of choice?), reading saves her and gets her into trouble at the same time. Serena’s expectations of a glamourous life with MI5 are soon destroyed by the reality of low-paid grunt work and a grungy London bedsit. She can’t resist an attempted dalliance with a fellow operative that doesn’t really go anywhere, and she makes a good girl friend only to fall out with her. McEwan paints a somewhat perfunctory portrait of the troubled seventies here, with galloping inflation, the three-day-week and the emergence of the IRA offering far more cause for alarm than the elderly Cold War, and everything is in awkward transition. The bureau has no more idea how to treat women than terrorists (who are probably not too far apart in their mental hierarchy). But then Serena does get the hint of a job, although it seems a strange one, and it’s her skills as a reader that stand as qualification.
The Service wants to fund right-minded authors, paying them a generous living wage in the hope (no Russian-type oppression here) that they will write the sort of rebuttals of Communism that encourage the West to stay free. They’ve identified a possible candidate, one Tom Haley, writing a PhD at Sussex and author of some intriguing early stories, and Serena is sent, in the guise of an innocent and independent representative of a literary foundation, to get him on board. And here’s where the novel really starts, with a series of interpolated stories that Serena reads in preparation for her trip. The stories bear an uncanny resemblance to the early work of none other than Ian McEwan, and as Tom Haley grows in literary stature, hanging out with Martin Amis and being taken on by the publisher Tom Maschler (McEwan’s first publisher), and writing the kind of book that will make Serena’s employers foam at the mouth, you sense the author having a great deal of fun. Inevitably, given Serena’s history up to this point, she falls in love with her charge, and thereupon begins the breast-beating about whether and/or how she can possibly tell him she is not who he thinks she is.
Given that pretty much all money is dirty money somewhere along the trail, and given that most aspiring authors would sell their grandmas to fund full-time writing, the dilemma can seem a bit quaint and twee. But it’s all very entertaining, so it doesn’t really matter. We also seem to have turned a corner, leaving the official realm of spies and their usual stories far behind. But as Bookboxed put in a comment yesterday (and I hope he doesn’t mind being paraphrased), the novel is playing with the whole concept of spying, and if we leave the Cold War trappings behind, what we get does hunker down close to the root of the concept: people putting each other under surveillance and keeping secret their reasons for doing so. It is concerned with what spying is basically about, and the end of the novel has a few big surprises in store. There were times in this novel when I really wasn’t sure about the tropes McEwan was playing with, whether they were too over-used to be any good. But I have to hand it to him, he pulled it out of the bag at the end, which left me with a big and completely unexpected smile on my face. Now the question is: when the ransom demand comes in for the original Ian McEwan, should we pay it or let this chap carry on his place?