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Sweet Tooth By Ian McEwan, Cape, Rs 550

The year 2012 was probably not the easiest year in which to publish a spy thriller. With each passing day, the David Petraeus scandal grew more and more bizarre, with CIA chiefs and even presidential politics in the United States of America being rocked turbulently by a “shirtless” FBI agent, an envious lover and hoards of potentially shocking emails. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, Graham Greene and Robert Ludlum must be having an avid discussion about the improbability of it all. In the midst of all this, one is bound to wonder how Ian McEwan (picture) contends with such tales. Then one chances upon Sweet Tooth, which is devoid of treacherous heroes, explosives or feds hacking into email accounts. It would seem that over the years, McEwan has developed a strange interest in penile tragedies and bungled first couplings — his novel, Solar, had a particularly wince-inducing description of a frost-nipped penis’s ill-fated encounter with a zip, while a passage in On Chesil Beach builds up to a dreadfully botched sexual encounter between two virgins that ruins a marriage on its very first night. Sweet Tooth, too, boasts many awkward first couplings between the narrator and her numerous lovers (“I lost my virginity in my first term, several times over it seemed, the general style being so wordless and clumsy...”). But, unlike On Chesil Beach, McEwan’s latest offering is not really about sex. Set in Britain in 1972, Sweet Tooth is about reading, spying and agents who are fighting over, well, short stories.

The book begins with a confession by the “rather gorgeous” Serene Frome (“rhymes with plume”). She says, “[A]lmost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.” So readers know how her story, told in flashback, will conclude. Serena, the daughter of an Anglican bishop and a speed reader of novels, wants to study English but is persuaded by her mother that it is her “duty as a woman” to make her place in a man’s world and study maths instead. At Cambridge, she has an affair with an older, married history professor who grooms her for an interview with MI5. When the professor leaves her unceremoniously, she is heartbroken. Even so, she begins work for MI5. But she is soon annoyed to find that she has to slog as junior assistant officer in a “grubby little office” in Curzon Street. In her own time, she continues to devour the cream of modern fiction in paperback — since hardbacks are too expensive — and is taken aback when she is summoned “upstairs” to talk to a roomful of men, who tell her that they “understand… (she is) rather well up on modern writing — literature, novels, that sort of thing — bang up to date on, what’s the word… contemporary literature...yes,awfully well read and quite in with the scene.” Serena, delighted that her bosses think that she’s “in with the scene”, accepts a mission. She is to meticulously study the work of a young novelist, T.H. Haley. She must then meet him, go into raptures over his writing and offer him a stipend, under the guise of promoting artistic freedom — a struggling novelist’s dream. Codenamed Sweet Tooth, this mission is how MI5 covertly recruits journalists and writers whose works openly denounce communism. The recipient of the money must, of course, be kept in the dark about its source. “The men upstairs” take care to stress to Serena that they want “the sort (of writer) who might spare a moment for his hard-pressed fellows in the Eastern bloc... (and) isn’t afraid to talk publicly about writers in prison in Castro’s Cuba”. They also make it amply clear that they’re “not interested in the decline of the West, or down with progress or any other modish pessimism”. Serena then meets Haley, and falls for him. The heady affair soon starts feeling suspiciously like love, and Serena becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the lie she is living.

Haley, who is finally able to “concentrate on his art”, thanks to the money, produces the most modishly pessimistic dystopian novel. It is about “a journey a man makes with his nine-year-old daughter across a ruined landscape of burned-out villages and small towns where rats, cholera and bubonic plague are constant dangers… and neighbours fight to the death for an ancient can of juice”. Serena is alarmed, because this is clearly not what MI5 wants. To make matters worse, a publisher by the name of Tom Maschler is impressed with the story and wants to publish it as soon as possible.

Sweet Tooth’s tight construction is a huge part of its pleasure. McEwan’s prose is effortlessly seductive. It is full of stories within stories, and vivid images. For example, a taxi that Serena and Haley ride in late at night has “on the screen that divided us from the cabbie… an advertisement for a taxi like this one”. Sometimes McEwan seems to be using the relationship between Serena the spy and Haley the author as a metaphor for the complex dance of disguise and trust that goes on between a reader and a writer. In playing these mirror games, he seems to want to make us think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing. Like Henry Perowne in McEwan’s Saturday, Serena strongly objects to novels that play games with their readers — “no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art,” she says, “no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary.” There is, therefore, an elaborate joke at her expense — to what end, one never finds out — at the end of the book, as she finds herself at the heart of just such a novel.

Since Sweet Tooth starts off as what one assumes is Serena’s story, one would think that the mystery surrounding her opening confession would involve only the particulars of her “secret mission”, the identity of her lover and the way in which she failed. But what seems like McEwan’s expedition into John le Carré territory — the spying game will remind you more than once of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — soon turns into an overly complicated saga, in the midst of which is a writer who bears an uncanny resemblance to McEwan himself. You discover that most of the stories Haley writes are adaptations of stories from McEwan’s In Between the Sheets. For example, Haley’s dystopian novel that sends Serena into a tizzy is a reworking of McEwan’s short story, “Two Fragments”. Even Haley’s university, the University of Sussex, is McEwan’s alma mater. Then there are the pastiches involving Maschler — McEwan’s first publisher — his mentor, Ian Hamilton, and his friend, Martin Amis, who appear at various stages in the book. The minute one becomes aware of these things, Sweet Tooth turns into a work that, in spite of its intelligent crafting, lacks the powerful feelings found in McEwan’s Atonement as well as the ability to chill you to the bone the way his Booker-winning Amsterdam does.

But what works for Sweet Tooth is the fact that it is not so much about MI5 or the Cold War or the 1970s — in spite of the long, obvious passages about the Irish Republican Army and miners’ agitations — as it is about readers and reading. McEwan captures brilliantly our own peculiar reactions, as readers, to fiction; he makes us reconsider the assumptions we make when we read a work of fiction. Serena seems to echo readers when she says that all she ever wants from fiction is “my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form”. These aspects of the novel keep the reader trucking through it, even though they turn out to be inadequate compensation for the story’s self-conscious contrivance.