Category Archives: Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

4 stars

4/5

If you are a fan of Ian McEwan’s writing then Sweet Tooth shouldn’t disappoint.

Jonathan Cape, 2012 edition, 336 pages – gift

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?

And here are the books I read while I was away…

Over the past few months I guess I maybe haven’t read as much as I usually would. I’m not sure if that was just being very busy doing other things, or a bit of reading-fatigue.

I do think I felt less motivated to read as my head was so full of ‘to-dos’ and, as you may have gathered from my previous post on blogging principles it had started to feel a bit like a chore. Participants of Riverside Readers will also recognise that the selection below are almost exclusively book group choices. When you’re on a slow-reading run, reading a monthly book group choice can mean you don’t get to read much else but thankfully our members made some good choices.

Favourites;

Wide Sargasso Sea was my choice for Riverside Readers, a dark and moving tale which imagines the background and once vibrant personality of Antoinette Cosway a character Rhys plucks from Jane Eyre. Rhys’ sparing prose and darkly vivid descriptions of post-colonial Jamaica kept me spellbound. One that I would like to re-read.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus will always bring me fond memories, as I was reading it during my holiday to Prague where I became engaged to be married. It was such a delight to read about the magical world of the circus and it’s also a romantic story on many levels. Unusually for a book I’m enjoying, I found myself wanting to read it slowly so that I could savour it. One of the things that I loved was how the circus popped up all around the world (including Prague) so I could enjoy the descriptions of all the places that I have been. I also loved the imaginative characters.

Sweet Tooth is the last book I put down. A certain Savidge Reads gave me a copy about a month ago – we are both big fans of McEwan. I was a little uncertain about how much I would enjoy it as his last book Solar (review here) was was well written and topical but I wasn’t blown away with it as I was with other novels like Atonement or Enduring Love. In the end, it was that perfect combination of being both enjoyable to read and clever too. I also enjoyed reading from the point of view of Serena and the secret service plot-line although the storyline turned out a little differently than I thought it might – in a good way.

Worth checking out;



I also enjoyed Charlotte Rogan’s debut The Lifeboat which uses the plot device of  a stranded lifeboat to examine human behaviour in a claustrophobic and life-threatening situation. For me it read like a very well written television series – it was gripping but ultimately accounts of human behaviour under pressure such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Shute’s On The Beach (review here) disturbed me much more deeply.

God’s Own Country was excellent and also very dark. In the wild setting of the North Yorkshire countryside we meet local Sam Marsdyke who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl who has just moved to the area with her family. Raisin keeps the reader in an ambiguous haze as to Sam’s mindset – is he just a naive country bumpkin or are his motives more sinister?

The House of Sleep is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe and one that I very much enjoyed. Featuring an insomniac and a narcoleptic who have a tormented relationship as well as a slightly evil doctor who studies sleeping habits it is an original and involving story. I found the narrative at the start of the book which jumps between different time periods a little confusing, but the way that the plot develops towards the end is very satisfying.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Well a friend gave me a copy of this though I’m not ashamed to admit that I was intrigued to read it. Long story short – a bit racy (oh I sound like a maiden aunt don’t I?!) but not that racy in the scheme of things (you’re wondering what else I’ve been reading now…). Not a literary feat, but not as terrible as I had been led to expect. Am I intrigued to find out what’s next for Christian and Ana…? Erm… kinda. Will I get prioritise reading Darker and Freed… probably not.

The Rough Guide to WeddingsThe wonderful Claire (of Paperback Reader) who comes along to Riverside Readers book group with me, and is going through her own big life-stage moment doing her new house up, gave me this one. I’m not going to lie – I at first thought “Ooh that’s absolutely lovely but I don’t need this, I am not after all BRIDEZILLA!”. Well you know what. I do need it and it is great. I started reading it on the tube home and I’ve read it cover to cover and referred back to it at least ten times already. It is also the most un-bridezilla wedding book as it is very practical and encourages you to think carefully about how nuts you want to go. Or maybe it is a bit bridezilla but I just can’t tell now because I’ve already transformed!

Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Manis one of those that I really enjoyed reading at the time but now can’t really remember much about except that I enjoyed it. I remember it being quite clever and prompting a good book group discussion but main threads… gone!

The rest;

Jasper Kent’s Twelve was Sakura’s choice for book group. I was really quite excited about this as the synopsis sounded thrilling – a vampire novel set in the Napoleonic wars in Russia. I was expecting a romp. It was a bit long and drawn out and not quite romp-ish enough. The main character was also really annoying and the female characters were totally unexciting. Overall quite entertaining but I wouldn’t read the next one unless I was on holiday, it was on the hotel bookshelf and I’d run out of books.

The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe was quite good but paled in comparison to The House of Sleep as mentioned above. It follows a some poor bloke whose life is falling apart as he goes on a mission to sell a prototype toothbrush to the furthest corners of the UK which involved going a long way out into the middle of nowhere and going slightly batty talking to his Sat Nav. Nice Novel Insights was thinking ‘poor old Maxwell Sim’ and nasty Novel Insights was thinking ‘oh sort it out!’

The Curfew (Vintage Contemporaries)by Jesse Ball was the choice of one of our lovely book group members Armen. I look forward to Armen’s choices because he always picks something I wouldn’t have heard of and often from a far-off land. This one just didn’t do it for me though. Maybe it was just a bit ‘too Kafka’ for me and you know I don’t always like that

I hope you enjoyed that whistle-stop tour of the books I’ve been reading and maybe saw one or two you are interested in.

What books have you read in the last six months that really stood out as favourites?

Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwanA couple of weeks ago, I went along with Simon (Savidge Reads) to hear Ian McEwan talk and got myself a copy (signed!) of his latest novel Solar.

Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a physicist and a philanderer. We enter his life in the year 2000 at the end of his fifth marriage which is failing because of his repeated affairs which have driven his wife Patrice into the arms of a builder. A former Nobel Prize-winner now gone to seed, Beard’s life is changed by an unexpected accident which solves one problem in his love-life and opens the door for him professionally. With his career invigorated, Beard is set to save the world from Global Warming if only he can look past his expanding belly and keep his complicated personal life from imploding.

The excellent character development in Solar, and the unsparing detail within the writing is exactly as I expect from Ian McEwan. The character of Michael Beard is at times loathsome, at others pitiable and the author’s treatment of him is brutal but also witty. He isn’t a protagonist that you want to succeed. He’s an anti-hero, who reminded me vaguely of Malcom Bradbury’s Howard Kirk in The History Man in his self-absorbed and egocentric outlook. I couldn’t empathise with him, but the thoroughness with which he is depicted has left a sort of stain on my mind – a very memorable creation!

The story itself does have a series of events, but it is definitely more of a chronicle of Beard’s personal journey. We follow him from his darkest days, through to a kind of new vigour and back again. Just as the world seems to be on a runaway path to destruction, Beard’s physical appearance and health is also decaying, his life held together by a lie as fragile as the Earths ecosystem is purported to be.

I enjoyed McEwan’s metaphors and the comments within the book that couldn’t help but be topical. At the beginning of the novel, Beard considers how each generation needs its own Armageddon. With the threat of the Cold War over, Climate Change may be our modern incarnation. Later, he gives a speech about motivating the masses to make changes to help the environment, commenting that it is not virtue that will move them, but self-interest and novelty; “Virtue is too passive, too narrow”.

Because of the subject that it deals with, Solar is fairly heavy in academic, science-related language. After all, Beard is a physicist, so we as a reader must share his science. At times this can make it a bit of a difficult read, even turgid in parts. I wouldn’t say that it is one of McEwan’s more ‘enjoyable’ books because the subject matter is so dark. However he does inject witty moments into the books to lighten it, such as when Beard experiences a particularly ‘sticky’ moment on a trip to the arctic (literally!). A few more doses of humour like these could have made the story flow a bit more.

Solar is a thought-provoking read – challenging in parts and funny in others. Overall it I found it a very interesting portrait of a man brilliant enough to change the world, but too corrupt to be its saviour.

My rating:

7 out of 10

Have you read or plan to read Solar?