I consider Ian McEwan, like Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis, to be a clever but cold writer — though I enjoy and appreciate his work.
Furthermore, McEwan has written about some pretty nasty subjects (not in the same league as Edward St. Aubyn, though). But in his recent books he seems to have softened — Solar was unusually warm for him (that was not intended as a pun), although of course the main character of that novel is not a particularly nice person.
McEwan also likes to play intellectual games with his readers. I still have not forgiven him for the twist in Atonement: I was completely taken in by Briony’s version of later events and at the end of the book felt as though I had been gullible and the author had been dishonest.
Anyway, all those caveats aside: in Sweet Tooth, the time and place was familiar to me. I worked for some Civil Service departments in Britain in the seventies and, of particular relevance to this book, I worked in Hong Kong for an outpost of General Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), a rather secretive organization. Sweet Tooth vividly brought back the memory of grim, grey offices and the grim, grey, middle-aged male officers within them: the rules, written and unwritten, the protocol, the old boys’ network and the sexism that persisted in the secret service long after the regular government offices became places of equal opportunity.
Serena Frome is an attractive young mathematician who is recruited for the secret service by her middle-aged lover, Tony Canning:
I didn’t cancel my appointment with MI5. I had nothing else in my life now, and with Lucy’s affairs settled for the moment, even the Bishop was encouraging about my career prospects in Health and Social Security … I went to my interview in Great Marlborough Street, on the western edge of Soho. I waited on a hard chair set down for me by a mutely disapproving secretary in a dim corridor with a concrete floor. I don’t think I’d ever been in such a depressing building. Along from where I sat was a row of iron-framed windows formed out of the sort of bubbled glass bricks I associated with basements. But it was the dirt, inside and out, not the bricks, that deterred the light.
The descriptions of London in the seventies feel right to me. It was a depressing time:
Late October brought the annual rite of putting back the clocks, tightening the lid of darkness over our afternoons, lowering the nation’s mood further. November began with another cold snap and it rained most days. Everyone was speaking of ‘the crisis.’ Government presses were printing petrol rationing coupons. There had been nothing like this since the last war. The general sense was that we were heading for something nasty but hard to foresee, impossible to avoid. There was a suspicion that the ‘social fabric’ was about to unravel, though no one really knew what this would entail …
I revived my newspaper habit. It was the opinion pages that drew me, the complaints and laments, known in the trade, so I’d learned, as why-oh-why pieces. As in, why-oh-why did university intellectuals cheer on the carnage wrought by the Provisional IRA and romanticise the Angry Brigade and the Red Army faction? Our empire and our victory in the Second World War haunted and accused us, but why-oh-why must we stagnate among the ruins of our former greatness? Crime rates were soaring, everyday courtesies declining, the streets filthy, our economy and morale broken, our living standards below those of communist East Germany, and we stood divided, truculent and irrelevant.
After she has been observed, vetted, and found suitable, Serena is given an assignment that fits right into the battle-of-the-hearts-and-minds government propaganda efforts of the day: she is to offer financial support on behalf of a fake cultural foundation to a young author whose writing is brilliant, provocative and, importantly, politically right-leaning. The anti-communist attitudes were not as wildly over the top as were American attitudes in the seventies, but they are there.
The operation is called Sweet Tooth. The view of Serena’s masters is that the organization has no need to try to influence the author — they have already determined what his ideas are through his body of work to date and are content to sit back and let him write, without his knowing that he is, in a sense, writing on their behalf.
Serena sets the operation in motion and recruits the selected writer, Tom Haley. After working with him, she falls in love with him and begins an affair. The dilemma then becomes whether, or maybe when, she will confess her background to Tom, lose her job, and take a chance on whether they still have a future together.
But this is Ian McEwan, so it is not quite so straightforward. You get novels within this novel, of course. But there is a little more to it than that.
I believe McEwan is at his best when immersing himself in the kinds of telling details that conjure up the time and place he’s writing about. He also, of course, has a talent for describing a place, creating a mood — and then pulling back the curtain to surprise you:
The moon was higher now and the touch of frost on the grass was light, even more tasteful than our mother’s efforts with the spray can. The cathedral, lit from the inside, looked isolated and displaced, like a stranded ocean liner. From a distance we heard a ponderous organ introducing ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ and then the congregation gamely belting it out. It sounded like a good crowd, and I was glad for my father’s sake. But grown-ups singing in ragged unironic unison about angels … I experienced a sudden lurch in my heart, as though I’d looked over a cliff edge into emptiness. I believed in nothing much — not carols, not even rock music.
Wow! Just when I thought I would never see another episode of Inspector Morse (the police procedural series based on books by Colin Dexter and starring John Thaw), along comes a prequel! And, although that word strikes fear into the heart of any critical television watcher, this one didn’t put a foot wrong.
Shaun Evans does a fine job of playing the young Detective Constable Morse. Morse has dropped out of Oxford before completing his degree owing to a love affair that went wrong. He has had a spell in the Army. Now he is in the police force — though, as with the other milieux, he does not completely fit.
A nice combination of hesitancy and assertiveness, Evans does all the things that a young Morse would do: he stays late at the office instead of going to the pub with his colleagues; he spends too much time alone listening to music and not enough time with other people; he gets emotionally attached to unavailable women, and seems pathologically unable to stay away even when they are involved in a case he is working on; he jumps to conclusions too early. At the beginning of the pilot he doesn’t drink but after an unfortunate experience observing an autopsy he is convinced to down a beer to settle his stomach. He has no car but he gets to drive his boss’s Jaguar and we may infer that this is the beginning of another lifelong affiliation.
There is of course the usual rather silly portrayal of Oxford post-grads and professors: they are unfailingly aloof and snobbish and they tend to gaze off into the distance a lot and recite poetry. One must ignore them and concentrate on the character of Morse.
I am looking forward to future episodes.