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September 24, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – Sweet Tooth

Novel by Ian McEwan

Debut novels often tend to be heavily autobiographical. The youth of first-time novelists denies them the requisite life experience to inform their fiction, increasing the likelihood of direct personal appropriation.

This accusation could hardly have been levelled against the young Ian McEwan, whose initial work was notable for its experimentalism and unusual themes.

Even after a dozen novels, McEwan has avoided his own lens. Perhaps to further effect his evasion, he has never depicted the decade of his formative years: the seventies. It’s a forgivable absence. For a British writer, the national identity crisis of those years presents a difficult hurdle to translate. For McEwan, the temptation for rose-tinted introspection must be great.

With Sweet Tooth McEwan finally relents. He gives us a full-frontal portrait of 1970s London in all its concrete and concern, but also a glimpse of himself—albeit at somewhat of a remove.

With a breathy economy we are introduced to Serena Frome, a Cambridge graduate. After recalling a series of uninspiring college romances, Serena finds herself groomed for a career in the secret services. Within months of joining MI5, she lands a role in a secret operation.

As part of an effort to prevent communist ideals infiltrating popular culture Serena is sent to shadow a writer. Aspiring novelist and English Literature student Tom Haley (the young Ian McEwan in everything but name) is an ideal candidate.

Serena and Tom’s meetings—and subsequent relationship—are played out against a backdrop of political unrest, power shortages and industrial action. The tension is heightened as Serena begins to suspect her employers of spying on her.

Despite its thrilling premise, Sweet Tooth is one of the author’s more glacial works. In handing over the narrative duties to his female lead, McEwan also relinquishes some of his narrative and stylistic gloss.

In an unfortunate case of critical cuckolding, the novel’s real merit pivots entirely on its conclusion. This is story-telling stretched over a conceptual framework whose real power can only be fully comprehended once the final lines have been read.

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