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.




9780374175443

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their May picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Below, staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

6428590-3x2-700x467

Anwen Crawford

Nothing Is Sacred: How 8MMM Aboriginal Radio is having the last laugh

8MMM Aboriginal Radio is a situation comedy in which an Indigenous woman always has the last laugh. That makes it a rarity on Australian television. What’s more, it’s funny, which too few sitcoms, local or otherwise, ever are. Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. 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 »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

16741557134_5206bec0cd_k

Jane Howard

Dark Side of the Rainbow: Belvoir St Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz

This production of The Wizard of Oz is ‘after L Frank Baum’: after his book, after the 1939 film, and after our collective memories of both. Fragmented, non-narrative, and largely wordless, it relies on our existing knowledge of the text to build a work of images and emotion, and in doing so demands an extreme generosity from the audience. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »