Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”) is no Emma Peel. She bungles her first, and only, assignment with M-I5, she tells readers in the first paragraph of Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan's 15th novel, Sweet Tooth.
“[A]lmost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Serena is a bishop's daughter with a talent for math and looking good in a miniskirt. She was groomed for M-I5 by one of her lovers, Tony Canning, a professor in his 50s who left his country's service under questionable circumstances.
In 1972, Serena and other female operatives on Curzon St. are poorly paid filing clerks, used only for office work, cleaning safe houses, and the occasional honey trap. M-I5 is still working with the playbook written for the Cold War with the Soviets at a time when its attention should be focused far closer to home. It's le Carré territory, but with no George Smiley in sight.
After the magazine Encounter is exposed as having been funded by the CIA – a real-life episode – M-15 decides that it wants its own pet writers, too. The idea of spies funding competing short-story writers sounds absurdly genteel, but it really happened. (And have the literary magazines that are left considered applying to the FBI for funding?)
Serena is assigned to convince a writer, Tom Haley – whose short stories bear a certain similarity to McEwan's early work – to unknowingly accept money from an M-15-funded foundation.
After reading his stories, Serena is smitten with Haley, endangering her career and the entire operation. After the tangled tentacles of the Petraeus scandal, Serena's unprofessional conduct seems quite modest, but McEwan isn't out for blood with this novel. “Sweet Tooth” is a lighter affair, a spy novel packing a surprise ending.
McEwan writes about the crossover between scribes and spies, detailing not only the Encounter affair, but Bond creator Ian Fleming's work during World War II.
Serena, a voracious reader (it's one of her few endearing qualities), prefers her novels straight, not shaken or stirred.
“I wasn't impressed by those writers (they were spread between South and North America) who infiltrate their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or, to the contrary, to insist that life was a fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two,” says Serena. “So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent.”
His heroine might loathe the last chapter, but it will come as a treat for long-time readers and adds layers to what had heretofore seemed like a pretty straightforward historical novel.
“Sweet Tooth” lacks the devastating power of 2001's “Atonement,” another McEwan novel that turned on its ending. But even if it's not quite the cyanide capsule needed to make the novel rank among McEwan's best, the final chapter rips away the one-sided mirror from which we've viewed the narrative, making a reader question everything that came before.