A subtly and sweetly subversive novel which seems more characteristic of its author as it becomes increasingly multilayered and labyrinthine in its masterful manipulation of the relationship(s) between fiction and truth.
Both the title and the tone make this initially seem to be an uncharacteristically light and playful novel from McEwan (Atonement, 2002, etc.). Its narrator is a woman recounting her early 20s, some four decades after the fact, when she was recruited by Britain’s MI5 intelligence service to surreptitiously fund a young novelist who has shown some promise. After the two fall in love, inevitably, she must negotiate her divided loyalties, between the agency she serves and the author who has no idea that his work is being funded as an anti-Communist tool in the “soft Cold War.” Beautiful (as she recognizes such a character in a novel must be) and Cambridge-educated, Serena Frome seems perfect for the assignment of soliciting writer Tom Haley because, as one of her superiors puts it, “you love literature, you love your country.” The “Sweet Tooth” operation makes no attempt to control what its authors write and doesn’t reveal to them exactly who is funding them, but provides financial support for writers who have shown some resistance to fashionable radicalism. Though Serena’s reading tends toward “naive realism,” favoring novels where she would be “looking for a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes,” the relationship between Tom’s fiction and his character, as well as the parallels between the creative inventions his job demands and those of hers, illuminate the complexities of life and art for Serena and the reader as well. “In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in.” The “work” being discussed is undercover intelligence, but it could just as easily be literature.
Britain’s foremost living novelist has written a book—often as drily funny as it is thoughtful—that somehow both subverts and fulfills every expectation its protagonist has for fiction.