Books, Reviews

Not such a bitter aftertaste: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth

by Carody Culver , August 29, 20121 Comment

Long before Mulder and Scully turned the phrase ‘trust no one’ into an iconic piece of pop culture, Agent George Smiley, world-weary MI6 intelligence officer and star of several spy novels by John le Carré, was meting out this sombre advice to his peers. But what happens when an agent chooses to ignore it? And how messy do sanctioned deceit and double-crossing become when they involve not just matters of the state, but of the heart?

Ian McEwan addresses these sticky questions with trademark pathos in his latest novel, Sweet Tooth. While his last book, 2010’s Solar – a satirical tale about an arrogant scientist – divided fans and critics, Sweet Tooth is a return to form: poignant and darkly witty, it’s both deft character study and canny exploration of human nature.

In 1972, Serena Frome (‘rhymes with Plume’), a middle-class beauty in her final year at Cambridge, is propelled into a job at MI5, Britain’s home intelligence service. While Serena’s story takes place over a decade after Smiley’s heyday, Britain in 1972 is still circling the cul-de-sac of Cold War politics. Anyone with communist sympathies is looked upon with deep suspicion, and Serena’s anti-red political beliefs win her a delicate, if low-level, mission in her first year of service: operation Sweet Tooth.

This brings her into contact with Tom Haley, a young writer with political sympathies that MI5 are keen to exploit. Inevitably, the two begin an affair, and it’s not giving anything away to say that it ends in disaster: ‘I was sacked,’ Serena admits in the novel’s opening paragraph, ‘having disgraced myself and ruined my lover’. Forty years on, Serena tells the story of her fall from grace, unfurling a complex tale of shifting identity and confused desires.

What’s most fascinating about Sweet Tooth is McEwan’s clever use of the unspoken pact between reader and writer, which plays a pivotal and unexpected role in Serena and Tom’s relationship and its retelling.

Serena devours novels – ‘three or four a week’ – and spends long evenings in her lonely Camden bedsit losing herself in the lives of others: ‘I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for something, a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes.’ She reads Tom’s stories – dark, misogynistic tales of thwarted ambition and jealous lovers – and falls for his words before she meets him.

But just as she discerns only fragments of the real Tom in his fiction, so Serena must conceal the whole truth of her identity from him; and these fractured selves, refracted through the complex prism of Tom’s writing and Serena’s reading, present a growing threat to the integrity of Sweet Tooth. ‘If I hadn’t wasted three years being bad at maths at Cambridge, I might have done English and learned how to read,’ Serena reflects. ‘But would I have known how to read T.H. Haley?’

It’s an unanswerable question; and for all that Serena walks knowingly into her own downfall, she is also a pawn in a man’s world, manipulated by the shadowy figures at the top of MI5, a place where ‘people at our level were not supposed to have minds of their own’.

By the end of Serena’s confession, which brings fresh revelations of duplicity, no one is without blame: as always, McEwan is an insightful documenter of our secret selves versus the selves we reveal to others. His characters may not always be likeable, but this is often because they are honest representations of humanity: flawed, selfish, wilfully blind, and decisively real.

Serena’s tale reminds us that our selves are mutable, shifting in tune with desire and circumstance. ‘The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual,’ the young Serena believes of good fiction; but, as Smiley would probably agree, such consistency is nothing but a fiction in itself.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based bookseller and freelance writer. She’s also working on a PhD thesis about cookbooks, which could just be an elaborate cover for her out-of-control cookbook-buying habit.




capote-dog

The Outsiders: The early stories of Truman Capote

The recent publication of The Early Stories of Truman Capote – a collection of newly-discovered short stories from the archives of the New York Public Library – reveals the preoccupations of the adolescent Capote, drawn to drifters, exiles, and others living on society’s fringes. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.
(AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.)
SARA GILBERT

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »

SPEAR_0014_Edward_Mulvihill copy 2

Lauren Carroll Harris

Eyes Open Dreaming: Spear and the potential for an Australian art cinema

Commercial success has long been prized as Australian cinema’s salve, and the values of that commerce-based vision of success have deeply permeated the national conversation. Spear sets this conversation aside entirely, raising in its stead the possibility of an art cinema in Australia. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

Bowie - The Image  1

The Art of Immortality: David Bowie and The Image

With the news this week of David Bowie’s death at the age of 69 from a long battle with cancer, watching The Image is an oddly reassuring experience: the shared, mass hope that it can’t be true, that he’s not really gone, is played out in this grainy, almost haunted relic now almost 50 years old. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

PLM

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »

_85072354_hamlet3-pa

Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »