Monday, 10 September 2012

Ian McEwan | Sweet Tooth

Love the cover of the latest Ian McEwan. The figure on the front is quite clearly intended to be the glamorous lead character, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume).

This book has one of the most delicious opening paragraphs I've read in a contemporary novel for a very long time.

After getting a third in Maths at Cambridge, Serena has an affair with a professor, a much older man, Tony, who instructs her in the politics of the Cold War. She's an easy convert and happy to agree to a job interview with MI5.

What follows never quite becomes a full blown spy story. Serena is beautifully imagined. An awkward, slightly aloof daughter of a bishop, the ultimate English middle class good girl, a compulsive reader of novels (in paperback, she can't afford hardbacks), who is sucked into the shady world of espionage by virtue of chance and her good looks.

Her former lover's history emerges -- no huge surprises perhaps but it is neatly done. It is however her mission, to fund an author, to encourage him to write anti-Soviet literature, which makes up the meat and bones of this book. She falls in love with Tom Haley in part through reading his short stories.

This, for me, is the one weakness of the novel. McEwan relates these stories in a "reported" fashion. And you can sense the pace of the novel slacken as he does it. Also, he never quite goes far enough with the spying. McEwan loves a high stakes plot, but here, it doesn't quite become that.

That said, it is highly enjoyable and the final twists of the novel are hugely satisfying. Being a McEwan, you are left wondering what it was you just read, and flipping back to see where the trick was laid. But of course, it was there all the time. From that very first paragraph.

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