Review: Sweet Tooth

By Ian McEwan. Grade: A

Ian McEwan, is a well-renowned name in the industry and needs little introduction. His Enduring Love and Atonement were made into films and the latter even won the highly prestigious Oscar. He has won the Jerusalem Prize and the Man Booker Prize.  Sweet Tooth is his new addition to his line of great books.

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere. Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ which brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one. McEwan’s mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love, and the invented self.

History, literature coupled with an interesting narrative make the book interesting. The story captures you from the get-go. Set in 1970s, the protagonist is Serema Frome (“rhymes with plume”), who devours books and novels but is stuck at Cambridge doing not what she wants to do. She falls in love with Tony Canning who prepares her for secret service. She is hired by the MI5 at the junior level. Her vast knowledge of literature lands her a secret mission named “Sweet Tooth”. The title of the book takes from this (or might be the author’s attempt to satisfy his reading audience’s sweet tooth).

“To recreate you on the page I had to become you and understand you, and in doing that, well, the inevitable happened.”

Serema’s role is to find prospective writers for the British Agency, and go undercover to make the mission a success. The potential writer is Tom Healy, with whom Serena gets into a passionate relationship that stems from their (obvious) mutual love for literature. She succumbs mentally, physically and emotionally to this new fellow. The rest of the story should not be divulged here as it might just kill the reading experience for some.

The book has great detail and the effort behind it is appreciated. However it can get a little boring for someone who might not be aware of the several literary references in the book. Serema is an ardent lover of literature. She devours books and the concept of ‘a book as an escape’ comes out here. She can escape the field of Maths where she is unwillingly stuck and can escape ‘from’ that life and at the same time escapes ‘into’ life. While she escapes her life she enters into the romances she reads; waiting, imagining and then living hers later. These books become a part of her consciousness. She recalls them at ease even after years. Perhaps the author is writing of the power of books and words. Then the book can be seen as a writer emphasizing the importance of a product he creates. The reader is caught and not let go even after the end. It is exactly how Serema is played by the writer, how she plays the reader as another writer/ narrator of a story. This constant tension between who the real writer is and who is the reader is a very large part of the book. The loyalty of an author to a work is brought up when Serema is not satisfied with Healy’s work and she expresses her role as that of a reader:

I am the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.

The author’s knowledge of literature is highlighted in the many references made but McEwan should have, perhaps, kept it in mind that it just might lead to a broken interest at the reader’s end. Perhaps McEwan took a risk there. The success of which is subjective. Some might get hooked, some might just skip. The command over language is impressive though.

The stories that Serema recounts fall together beautifully. It is a fluid flow from one to another and you get into the mind of the character itself. The web of stories, the theme within a theme concept adds a little extra.  The plot however is not that simple and does justice to the book’s definition of a spy novel. It is also a woman’s journey through ups and downs and the author himself called it “a mutated version of a memoir”. Along with this capturing recounting of a past, there are thrilling twists and turns. It’s a complicated blend in the book which begins slowly, letting you sit back in big chair and relax. But before you get too comfortable; just at the right moment it accelerates, leaving you on the edge of that very chair! That’s always a good sign in a book. The book can take you on a roller coaster ride, enthralling, exciting, thrilling but makes you gasping and turning back for more.

The end should remain a surprise because it has the crux of the book but it the very thing that is the cherry on the top.

Those who have read McEwan in the past will not be disappointed. It is a good read to be grabbed at the earliest. There are some who might believe that the book is not as good as his earlier works. For those introduced to McEwan for the first time will probably like the book more because they are stripped of that unconscious comparison we make when we have read a writer a few times. Others might completely disagree but that is the freedom that literature gives.

This post was written by

Ritika Singh – who has written posts on Vault of Books ||.
Hi! I’m doing my Masters in literature. I am a book-o-holic who also loves a blank canvas to paint and a blank sheet to scribble my thoughts away.
“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience : its the ideal life.!”

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  • Jasindah Mir

    Planning to read this soon…

  • Avni

    Heard a lot about Ian McEwan. Would definitely read the book, especially after this promising review,


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