If you are a fan of Ian McEwan’s writing then Sweet Tooth shouldn’t disappoint.
Set in the early 1970s in the shadow of the Cold War and IRA violence, the story follows Sylvia Frome, an attractive and bright young woman as she muddles her way through Cambridge university and then after a brief affair with an older man, tries to find her feet in the secret service. At a time when women were considered most usefully employed as paper-shufflers or secretaries Sylvia’s expectations are fairly low until she becomes involved in a special mission to seed literature with appropriate political undertones into public consciousness.
Sylvia is a likeable character – passionate about reading and knowledge. She has a quality about her which Spark’s Miss Brodie might call ‘instinctive’. She doesn’t always seem to know what path she is treading but makes the best of what is given to her. She doesn’t pass as a true ‘heroine’ because she isn’t quite formidable or solid enough – the reason for this lies at the end of the novel.
I admit that I was thrown a bit by what I expected from the novel (from the premise and early part of the story). I would recommend that you don’t pick this up thinking ‘ooh Ian McEwan does female James Bond!’ Sweet Tooth is really much more a book about character development, the feeling of a certain era and literature, with the spying element being more of a vehicle for this. Have I confused you enough with that explanation?
The pace of the novel is fairly leisurely and McEwan – skilled writer as he is – uses language to create sounds, scents and to pull the reader into his character’s memories. I marked the page for this short but lovely sentence;
“It became one of those childhood paradise places burnished by nostalgia”.
I found it fascinating to read about how the government tried to influence people’s political views through literature, especially in light of some of the recent discussions I’ve heard since the Olympics about China’s use of “Soft Power” to increase it’s national profile worldwide.
It is worth mentioning that critics of Sweet Tooth, would probably say that it doesn’t really go anywhere concrete, and some readers may feel tricked by McEwan. It won’t be for everyone (especially if you are looking for a thriller) but I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I rather like to be led down unexpected paths when I’m reading.
An enjoyable and surprising read for me, and thanks Simon for giving me a copy for my birthday – his review is here.
Have you read or would you like to read Sweet Tooth?