Ian McEwan’s ‘Sweet Tooth’ Delves into the World of Spies and Anti-Communism

Lee Polevoi


In the mid-1970s, a young Cambridge-educated woman, Serena Frome, is recruited by MI5, Britain’s security service, to take part in an operation code-named “Sweet Tooth.” Its mission is providing secret support to writers deemed acceptably anti-Communist in their political outlooks. The writer she’s assigned to investigate (and then provide funds to) is Tom Haley, who lives in Brighton. One day, while Tom is away from his office, Serena reads a story he’s written, narrated by a talking ape about “a writer struggling with her second novel.” At the end, Serena discovers the story “was actually the one the woman was writing.” The results displease her:


“I wasn’t impressed by those writers … who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even themselves were pure inventions … There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should to be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.”


This should set off alarms for any of the countless readers of Atonement, Ian McEwan’s 2001 tour de force, in which a key character turns out to have written the novel we’re reading. This is the kind of “authorial whim” (admittedly on a superbly skilled level) for which McEwan has become famous. Long before the end of Sweet Tooth, it’s clear he’s working in the same territory, though without necessarily achieving the same dazzling results.


As a storyteller, McEwan has few equals. From the novel’s opening lines—“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service”—he draws us into the dreary world of Cold War England, circa 1974,  time of internal social and political upheaval. The story purrs along like a well-oiled machine, as Serena falls in love with Tony Canning, a married professor and much older man. The affair ends badly, though not before Canning has set her on an eventful career path with MI5. For a long time Serena toils in obscurity, until she’s chosen to take part in Sweet Tooth, funneling stipends to “acceptable” novelists through a bogus foundation.


A long scene where Serena is vetted by a group of higher-ups amply demonstrates McEwan’s storytelling prowess. In the course of some 11 pages, he establishes the British Old Boys’ Cold War mentality with precise amounts of affection and disdain. Word has gotten around that Serena is an avid reader, which in itself seems to recommend her for the job. Her boss, Harry Tapp, endeavors to understand how modern writing (“literature, novels, that sort of thing”) can be manipulated to serve the greater interests of the Free World. To clarify matters, Serena notes that she reads novels when they come out in paperback, rather than the more expensive hardbacks, which are beyond her budget.


“This hair-splitting distinction seemed to baffle or irritate Tapp. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for several seconds and waited for the confusion to disperse.”


After asking a few clarifying questions, Serena decides to accept this great challenge and opportunity. Still, she wants to know specifically if it includes an elevation in her current lowly status. She tells the male assemblage that she wants to be clear about where things stand: “There followed an embarrassed silence of the sort only a woman can impose on a roomful of men.”


In the end, Serena is not as arresting a character as the young Briony Tallis of Atonement. For long stretches of the novel, not much happens, and a metafictional trick of the kind Serena so dislikes can be seen coming a ways off. But with its consummately crafted prose and narrative acumen, Sweet Tooth still succeeds in plunging us deep inside “an imagined world.”


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, author of the novel The Moon in Deep Winter, is nearing completion of a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

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