Culture Street


Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

On August 28, 2012

By Sophia Whitfield

Last year The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides looked in part at the influence of literature on the youth. Ian McEwan’s latest novel follows suit delving into the power literature has over its readers. The way the written word, fiction or non-fiction can change reader’s opinion.

Perhaps it is the current climate, struggling publishers and writers battle to be heard and to make a living that has led to a move by writers to highlight the triumphs of the written word. British journalism is under the microscope as it continues to battle the phone -tapping, room-bugging affair that led to the demise of British tabloid News of the World. Even Aaron Sorkin has turned his hand to the media with his latest offering, The Newsroom, where traditional journalism is trying to make a comeback.

Writers the calibre of Jeffrey Eugenides and Ian McEwan are showing their support for their embattled art, by writing literature within literature. Assured that there are readers out there still longing to read good literature authors seem keen to use their own writing for the promotion of other literary writers. Maybe readers are becoming too drawn in by sensational tripe?

McEwan’s Sweet Tooth sees a return back to the more traditional McEwan tales, the ones we expect from him. Solar was different, it was a book I referred to as a tale an older person might enjoy with a few incidental climate change elements thrown in. Sweet Tooth takes us back to Atonement or On Chesil Beach where the characters still have youth on their side, are likable, but are ultimately led astray by a series of unexpected events.

We meet Serena Frome in 1972, the lovable innocent daughter of a bishop, as she is entering her final year at Cambridge. She has abandoned her desire to study literature at her mother’s behest, studying mathematics instead, gaining a fairly poor 3 at Cambridge.

Serena becomes embroiled in an affair with Tony Canning, a middle aged Cambridge don. Canning once again sparks Serena’s desire to read literature, although his interest lies in non-fiction literature that reflects the history of the country. He is grooming his mistress for better things. Before his suspicious death Canning actively encourages Serena to embark on a career in the intelligence service.

MI5 are interested in Serena’s knowledge of literature. She is called to a meeting on the fifth floor and asked to rate the authors, William Golding, Kingsley Amis and David Storey. They are impressed with her knowledge and swiftly send her on her first mission, into the world of young aspiring novelist Tom Haley. Serena admires his stories and soon falls in love with the man. Can Serena’s relationship with Haley survive the inevitable revelation?

Readers will be caught up in McEwan’s masterly tale of love and treachery. Spies and literature are not new bedfellows, but McEwan is deft at penning an irresistible tale. Sweet Tooth has serious undertones with a nod to the politicising of literature, but most will simply enjoy the precise writing and adept sweeping storyline.


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