Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth Appreciated

There are only a couple of Ian McEwan novels I didn’t enjoy reading, Chesil Beach being the one I liked least, Solar the other. Sweet Tooth is at least as good as Saturday (published in 2006) both recommended reading. I admit I have a fondness for the early McEwan, and feel like I’m not keeping up with the development of a novelist and turning into an old fart that says shit like that.  Black Dogs, published in 1993, was my first introduction to his work, and my reading followed his work including Atonement and Amsterdam, which won the Man Booker Prize.

Sweet Tooth has been seen as something of a new direction for McEwan, at least in tone.  Even though the book turns on deceit and betrayal, it is not as hard and dark as his earlier work. Only one character dies, and that of natural causes and early on, after having set the story in motion. There is very little physical violence, if plenty of the emotional variety. It also has the closest thing to a happy ending I would expect from McEwan.  I never anticipate happy endings in all but comic novels, and enjoyed how McEwan’s characters come to understand and accept what actually happened.  Sweet Tooth has that very old-fashioned thing I appreciate in my reading – closure.

While reading the novel I had this strange feeling admirers of Carol Shields would enjoy it. Shields has been lauded and pilloried for her ability to find the transformative power of the quotidian in language and story.  In Sweet Tooth, McEwan stands the traditional spy novel on its head, highlighting how much everyday drudgery is involved in the enterprise.  He also makes very clear that women in the intelligence service in the 1970’s faced a glass ceiling, and one much lower than today’s.

What I truly love about this book is its insistence on the power of reading, and reading well.  Serena Frome, the protagonist, is a speed reader and loves reading novels, but gives in to parental pressure to study mathematics instead of English.  She meets the man that will change her life – a much older man who begins to groom her for the intelligence service. The loving description of how he teaches Serena to read is a short guide to all readers on how to pay attention and get the most out of the experience.

Sweet Tooth is also about writing and publishing, and for someone like me working in the milieu it is a fascinating account of the creative process, arts funding, and the politics of literary prizes like the Man Booker. It is refreshing to see in print a reminder on why arts councils were established after Word War II, as a soft element in the cold war, promoting the civilizing influence of the arts and literature, and their supposed role in nurturing democracy. This opens a whole can of worms, which I won’t open today.

For more about Ian McEwen and Sweet Tooth visit his website: www.ianmcewan.com





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