Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sweet Tooth: A Novel by Ian McEwan

 Sweet Tooth is my second Ian McEwan novel, having read Saturday (item #21) a couple of years ago. I must say I’m taken with these two works, and I’m not quite sure why. The prose is solid and sensible, not showy or intrusive. The characters are mostly ordinary persons, neither remarkably good nor evil. In the course of reading this book, which attracted me because of its espionage setting and my prior good experience with McEwan, I asked if it was worth going forward after I was well into it. Not that the writing wasn’t good. But the central character (the narrator) wasn’t doing anything all that intriguing or engrossing. Yet I couldn’t leave it. I’m glad I didn’t give it up. McEwan built the suspense slowly and subtly, and while nothing spectacular happens, we receive regular doses of insight from the characters. It’s almost a sleight of hand trick. In the end, we have quite a cleaver and provocative dénouement that worked for me. 

The setting of the novel is Cold War, 70’s-turbulent Great Britain. Domestically, the country is a mess. Yet its secret service, MI5, yearns to remain a part of the Great Game of fighting Communism. This backdrop works well for anyone who remembers those times (even here in the States): spiked oil prices, unions, tired leadership, betrayals (Fourth and Fifth Men) were all a part of the scenery for any personal drama in those times. To all this add the turbulence of a young woman finding her way in the world. Serena Frome (rhymes with plumb) is the center the action. She’s an effective and perceptive narrator without betraying her limitations. She gets pulled into the secret world of MI5 after having grown up the daughter of an Anglican bishop who's tucked away in the countryside. She moves through the world by fits and starts, neither superlative nor lacking in basic good sense. Her problems, however, mount as she becomes involved with an author whom she meets as a professional target. The basic perfidy of spying and espionage—even of the friendly sort—inevitably takes a toll on her. 

I won’t go further, but if you’re looking for an adult read, one that constructs a world set in the not-too-distant past with characters with whom you can sympathize, then this book is for you.

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