Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape) ISBN 9780224097383 

Is a balance of power, even if it means mutual deceit, essential for peaceful relationships? We follow voracious reader, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) from her student years in Cambridge into her first job at the Secret Service (MI5), for which her middle-aged lover recruits her.

It is the early ‘70s of the Oil Crisis, miners’ strikes, the emergence of the IRA and the Cold War. MI5 devises Operation Sweet Tooth in which novelists will be supported financially to contribute to a war of ideas against the Soviet Union. The selected novelists won’t know about MI5’s involvement or objectives.

Undercover, Serena enlists writer Tom Haley and starts an affair with him. This puts her in a precarious position of divided loyalties.
This is a book about books, even more about “invention”, as Serena grasps that that is what makes a story more than the sum of its parts. Invention also explains why the cultural cold war doesn’t work although inspired by successful operations in WWII. At that time “invention, imagination drove intelligence”, and Sweet Tooth “that precursor of decay, reversed the process and failed because intelligence tried to interfere with invention.”

I have not yet answered McEwan’s question for myself, but what an intelligent and entertaining way to pose it.

Josine Overdevest 

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