Monday, 17 September 2012

'Sweet Tooth' by Ian McEwan reviewed ***

I always expect so much of an Ian McEwan novel that when one slightly disappoints it really disappoints. In truth, I have given three stars out of respect for the author more than for the novel, which I won't be reading again (though I am currenly listening to the recorded serialisation from the BBC's Book at Bedtime).

Plot-wise there are too many false set-ups, starting with the opening sentences: '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. I didn't return safely.' Now, I'm no great fan of the spy story, but having been tempted in with such self-advertised promise it was a real let-down to be served porridge as it might be cooked in a 1970s English seaside B&B; porridge which is anyway removed by the landlord before it's eaten, and replaced by another unexciting course. Or to move the metaphor into more familiar territory for the genre, it's like being offered fantastic sex only to find oneself engaged in an unadventurous affair that 'ends' in coitus interruptus.

Serena's 'mission' - to recruit a first-time novelist who will unwittingly accept funding from MI5 who have some vague hope that he will turn out a story that is a) pro-establishment/anti-communist and b) highly successful and influential - is neither gripping nor credible. That the writer Tom Haley, having been thus recruited, goes on to write a novel at apparently breakneck speed that immediately wins a major literary prize and another book within the short space of this narrative that is meant to upend Serena's (and our) expectations is a device too far for this particular reader.

Yet it is not plot but character and tone that left me most dissatisfied. McEwan is usually pitch-perfect. His characters chime with the times and he provides subtle but revealing psychological insights through and of his protagonists. I don't know whether it has anything to do with his choice of a female voice to deliver a first person narrative, but this time I was not convinced. Serena gives us her history articulately but with all the passion of a cv. She records her emotions but somehow is unable to convey them in more than mere words.

I felt no whirl in any of her relationships - with Jeremy, with Tony, with Max or with Tom - despite her professions and her descriptions of their lovemaking. Consequently, none of these characters lived for me. With the exception of Tony, I found it difficult even to get a handle on how old or young they were, relying on contextual evidence as a reminder of what I was meant to imagine. Max is a cardboard career civil servant - his drunken but apparently sincere declaration of love for Serena (a significant development in the story) left me as cold as he is. Tom, according to what Serena tells us, is attractive, desirable and sensuous, but I could only take her word for it - I did not 'feel' Tom at all, which is a major drawback in appreciating the central relationship, the spindle upon which the story is meant to turn.

Essentially, I didn't care enough either about the plot or the relationships to engage fully with this novel. McEwan blows into life several small flames of action, using some of them as a torch to lead us down wrong tunnels, but that merely frustrates, and the one main flame is too weak to create a real conflagration. Of course the story is competently written and there is some of the old McEwan art to admire, but that ain't enough for a modern author of whom (like Tom Haley in the novel) much is expected. This book, like its central characters, lacks real substance and fails to capture heart or mind.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape London 2012)


  1. I really enjoy reading Ian McEwan and this book was no exception. However the plot seems to rely heavily on sexual scenes and emotional interactions in order to add weight to the importance of certain events. The overall impression is that it gets bogged down when it could be racing along.

  2. Yes, and even the emotional interactions seem more reported than felt.