London, Vintage, 2012, 370p
Due to high demand amongst staff at my school, a colleague and I are establishing a staff book club, starting with Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.
Although McEwan has a tendency to be incredibly tough on his protagonists, I like his writing. He is gritty, getting right into the minds of his characters. They are not flawless objects you cannot believe in, but detailed and flawed individuals who often cause their own demise.
Serena Frome is no exception. She is an attractive, intelligent young woman, fresh out of Cambridge, when she is spotted by MI5. She is recruited for operation Sweet Tooth, a project to mould the face of British culture through supporting writers who reflect the government's desired national mood. It is 1972 and society is in a difficult place, with the Provisional IRA threatening terrorism, workers going on strike, and the Cold War hanging over Europe. Serena is told to manage Tom Haley, an English professor who has shown an aptitude for writing what MI5 want to see. She admires his work, and when she meets him, falls for the man himself.
This novel did not unfold in the manner I had expected. The blurb is enough to make you anticipate fast-paced action, but the drama occurs in a rather more leisurely manner. The reader is aware that Serena is doomed from the beginning, unable to tell Tom who she really works for. The secret builds between them as they become closer and closer, threatening to unravel their peaceful seaside idyll.
And yet, I hugely sympathised with Serena. It might have been her unadulterated love of reading or her misguided approach to romance, but despite her being incredibly different from me, I related to her feelings. This is where I think McEwan is highly skilled: he gets right into the subconscious of his characters, breaking down their motives and movements so that the reader becomes in tune with the protagonist, and you start to believe you might have acted exactly as they did.
I am really looking forward to discussing this novel with my colleagues and friends - even if we conflict, I love exploring a novel through someone else's eyes.