Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Stunning novel too literary for Bond-ish hijinks
British writer Ian McEwan has been serving up literary pleasure for 37 years with his two collections of short stories and now, with the release of this multi-layered fiction, 13 novels.
He has won a bevy of literary prizes, most notably the 1998 Booker for Amsterdam, and is routinely -- and justifiably -- lauded with variations of "most gifted literary storyteller alive."
McEwan has confessed that he began his writing career deliberately veering from "the prevailing grayness of English style and subject matter," and in Sweet Tooth he employs the spy-novel genre to provide a milieu for his characteristic flair for the unusual.
The main character, 23-year-old recent Cambridge graduate Serena Frome ("rhymes with plume"), works for the British Intelligence Service, MI5. It's the early 1970s and Britain is awash in economic woes and IRA terrorism, and the MI5 is firing its last-ditch volleys in the anti-communist efforts of the Cold War.
The cultural front is the prime territory for espionage and Serena has been recruited by the MI5 to assist in the plan to influence the minds and sympathies of left-of-centre intellectuals away from the Marxist perspective. The idea is to provide financial support from a bogus literary foundation for "suitable" young writers, academics and journalists who have the ears of the public and will write "against the flow" of Communist sympathies.
Serena's mission is to pose as a member of the foundation and make an offer to an emerging novelist, Tom Healy, whose fiction and journal articles demonstrate the preferred frame of mind. The plot fans out from Serena's involvement with Tom, which soon turns to romance, and her halting trek from naiveté to awareness as she gets caught up in the unexpected ripples from her small stone in the espionage pool.
McEwan's bent is too literary for this novel to be aligned with other Cold War spy thrillers -- there are no James Bondian swashbuckling international intrigues or dramatic incidents of a George Smiley-like licence to kill.
McEwan's focus and interest are more on the issues behind the actions and plot -- most notably artistic freedom and the perils of political meddling with writers and their craft.
Having as major characters a voracious reader of novels (Serena) and a writer full of serious intensity (Tom), gives McEwan ample opportunity for metafiction, or writing about writing.
Some of this comes through in cheeky references to "simple" acts of reading, where readers look for versions of themselves in fiction or assume a one-to-one relationship between character and author.
A more intense narrative glare is reserved for governmental "interference with invention," which has historical precedent and warning in the disastrous CIA backing in the '60s of the anti-Soviet magazine Encounter and in the British Secret Service's embarrassing co-option of George Orwell in 1949 to generate a list of Stalinist sympathizers.
The implication that vigilance is still required to assure artistic freedom comes through in a surprising final twist -- which, by the way, equals the gripping one in 2001's Atonement.
McEwan turns the tables on who is spying on whom and cleverly demonstrates the reach of unfettered creativity and the power of the creative writer's voice in cultural affairs. Not a bad point to ponder in our time.
While a slight shallowness of the main character lessens reader sympathies and sets this book as second tier to the more stunning of his novels (Atonement, On Chesil Beach and that early, haunting The Cement Garden), you'll still need to keep a pencil close by or a finger on your e-book highlighter.
McEwan's handling of the English language, the freshness and precision of his prose is, again, breathtaking. Where else could we find crustaceans described as "shells containing the glistening cowpats of briny viscera"?
Marjorie Anderson is a Winnipeg editor, writer and a participant in a collaborative novel to be released in early 2013.
By Ian McEwan
Knopf Canada, 320 pages, $30
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J9
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