Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

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.




9864007066_4a196b364d_z

Tim Robertson

Fear, loathing, and the erosion of civil liberties

The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders is a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing everyone – an attack of the very freedoms and values our nation has been built on. Read more »

308982705_be9f94455b_b

Marika Sosnowski

Back inside: Life on the Syrian-Turkish border

In Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Read more »

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

cover_bad_feminist

Nathan Smith

These kinds of girls: The feminist essays of Roxane Gay and Lena Dunham

A galvanising moment is occurring now in popular gender politics and contemporary cultural texts. But unlike the 1990s wave of feminism, which heavily criticised mainstream representations of women in film and television, these new literary works not only accept these representations, but actively generate them. Read more »

9781863956932

Carody Culver

Charmless lives: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief and Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune

How do narrative non-fiction writers who dare to dissect the darker aspects of humanity keep their readers engaged, rather than simply horrified? Read more »

KrissyKneen_credit_DarrenJames

Carody Culver

‘As if the top of my head were taken off’: The digital possibilities of poetry

‘When Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” I can’t help but think she would be stupefied by the possibilities of digital literature.’ Read more »

15115828030_526f79c515_z

Julia Tulloh

The celebrity spokesperson phenomenon

What should we expect celebrity advocates to deliver? Emma Watson is not a full-time activist, but if she inspires young people to take an interest in gender equality, is that not a good thing? Read more »

Clara and Doctor

Julia Tulloh

Doctor Who’s gender dynamics: a mid-season evaluation

In some ways, Peter Capaldi was a problematic choice for the newest regeneration of Doctor Who. How on earth were the producers going to pull off a successful friendship between a middle-aged man and a twenty-something woman, without it seeming at best patriarchal and at worst creepy? Read more »

blue-ombr-speckle-liner

Julia Tulloh

From the outside in: the beauty vlogger phenomenon

A current cohort of beauty bloggers are helping to break down distinctions between internal and external expressions of self in ways that allow them to generate new ideas of beauty on their own terms, rather than according to society’s expectations of what women (or men) should look like. Read more »

Whiplash-Damien-Chazelle

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Whiplash: bloody fingers and broken drumsticks

Whiplash is one of the year’s most exciting and electrically charged films. Admittedly, that’s a large claim to make for a little movie about a New York music student, his abrasive teacher, and a whole lot of banging and yelling in band practice. Read more »

Gone-Girl-Ben-Affleck-Rosamund-Pike-Entertainment-Weekly-cover

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Marital Crises: Gone Girl and Force Majeure

You can share your body, your bed, your bank account, and even your toothbrush, with another human being. But each mind contains a private world that can never be fully understood or examined, let alone shared with another. Read more »

theskeletontwins1

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Suicide, Laughter and The Skeleton Twins

Even the best parents can inflict some form of lifelong damage upon their children. But when parents are outright mad, bad or dangerous – or in the case of the funny, bittersweet comic drama The Skeleton Twins, so depressed they commit suicide – the damage can feel impossible to bear, even decades down the track. Read more »

IMG_4309

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Patrons and gamemakers in the shadow of Gamergate

There is a lot to unpack about Gamergate, and a great deal more that isn’t at all worth taking seriously, but what the patronage pseudo-controversy has drawn attention to is the fact that there are potentially huge issues with moving to a model of monetary transactions in which our payments are increasingly networked and ‘social’. Read more »

ST_Ello_600

Connor Tomas O'Brien

The Rise of the High-Minded Startup

Ello’s manifesto is the key to understanding its relative success, and how it has managed to sign up hundreds of thousands of users despite offering a wafer-thin feature set. Read more »

6289302147_38e8035680_z

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Jacqui Lambie and the limits of Remix Culture

The combination of Google Image Search, Photoshop, and Facebook is a powerful one, providing web users with the ability to seek out swaths of copyrighted visual material, rip and manipulate these pictures so the original source is obscured, then share the freshly “remixed” images to a broad audience with no real fear of legal action. Read more »

9780062211194

Danielle Binks

Nepotism, bullying and stalking: When online reviews go bad

The tangible power author Kathleen Hale wields, evinced by her numerous connections and Guardian platform, enabled her continued harassment of her book’s 1-star reviewer. The vocal support and defence put forward by Hale’s influential friends and family appears to be a case of privilege feeding narcissism. Read more »

nonaandme

Danielle Binks

Race, growing up and Nona and Me

Nona & Me beautifully explores female friendship amid cultural and political upheaval. It’s a tender portrayal of two girls who have so much in common, but are worlds apart. Read more »

7183815590_de3f64bca6_z

Danielle Binks

‘YA-bashing’: sexism meets elitism

Another month, another critic who doesn’t read YA literature but still feels superior enough to dictate to those who do. And with this latest instalment of ‘YA bashing’ comes critique of the critics – as many start pointing to a patriarchal undercurrent that runs beneath such articles that claim young adult and children’s fiction is unworthy. Read more »

augie-march-havens-dumb-300x194

Sean Watson

Literal metaphors: Augie March’s Havens Dumb

Havens Dumb, Augie March’s first studio album in six years, opens with an uncharacteristically forthright song about the anxieties of fatherhood. Over a fifteen-year career, lead singer-songwriter Glenn Richards has developed a distinctive lyrical style grounded in visual evocation. Biography rarely seeps through, and when it does, … Read more »

PEREZ_3©yann_morrison-546x364

Chad Parkhill

The not-so-universal language of mankind

Music is, demonstrably, not the universal language of mankind: if that were the case I could make myself understood in Paris’s cafés and boulangeries by carrying around an iPod full of songs titled ‘A Coffee, Please’ or ‘A Baguette With Duck Rillettes To Go, Thanks’. Read more »

homepage_large.9419e472

Chad Parkhill

The music of exhaustion

The War on Drugs new album Lost in the Dream is the startling sound of exhaustion – both a personal exhaustion and a broader cultural exhaustion – transformed into art that is thrillingly and paradoxically vital. Read more »

thecode_main-620x349

Stephanie Van Schilt

An obligation to be kind? Australian TV critics and The Code

When Margaret Pomeranz recently spoke out about the obligation of local film critics to support the Australian film industry, she generated an interesting conversation in the critical community. Are critics who discuss the small screen in the public sphere obligated to be critically kind in their local coverage? Read more »

bojack-horseman-exclusive-trailer-debut_bghe

Stephanie Van Schilt

Jerks, antiheroes and failed adulthood in You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman

In addition to both being really funny, two new US comedies – You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman – speak to a widely-held fear about what, exactly, constitutes ‘adulthood’. Read more »

images

Stephanie Van Schilt

How To Talk Australians and the rise of web series

How To Talk Australians has deservedly garnered widespread praise both locally and internationally. With close to two million views worldwide, it could be deemed our first truly successful locally-produced web series. Read more »