Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Implausibly clever?

This is a very frustrating book to review, as it is virtually impossible to do it justice, without totally ruining future readers’ pleasure. The overall premise and structure of the book is a key part of what can’t be revealed. In essence, the book is a ploy, a trick, and a masterfully crafted one. It is written in vintage McEwan style: smooth, classy, “best-of-British” and erudite in an understated way.

I can safely share, without spoiling anything, that you will find a description of the less glamorous side of the British Security Service (MI5) in the early seventies, to be more precise, of its low-end administrative departments – think Moneypenny, but before she got promoted to mooning over 007. You will get a little insight in that whole English class system thing: the heroine, Serena, being a bishop’s daughter, mixes mostly with people “of her kind”, apart from one of her MI5 colleagues. The novel also paints the picture of the you’ve-never-had-it-so-good era ending, with three day weeks to cope with mining strike induced fuel shortages, and a portion of the youth of the nation (like the heroine’s sister) smoking pot. And of course, we follow the life, loves and reading habits of Serena.

The charting of this young woman’s education and first job, at MI5, is very readable for its own sake. And I have to confess to getting pretty much to the end of the book, before understanding where I was being taken to. The trick is revealed in the last few pages and I was left in hopeless admiration of a master who has demonstrated his skill. The very effortlessness displayed did, however, make me wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t just a little too slick. And I concluded that I wasn’t slow in getting it, it’s not fair, the book is just too clever…

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