With his latest novel Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan revisits scenes of his former triumphs. Sweet Tooth is set in the world of espionage, like The Innocent, and is ultimately about writing, like Atonement. It is clever, diverting, it just zips along—the ideal book for a longish commute. However, it is glib and flimsy.
This novel does not offer the cold sweat excitement of The Innocent (the part in The Innocent where Leonard is lugging that suitcase across Berlin is so nerve-wracking, we began to chew on the pages) or let us into the protagonist’s dread, guilt and paranoia. It does not have the scale, invention, ambition or emotional wallop of Atonement. (Even if you feel that you were tricked by that book, you can’t deny the sense of having lived through something.)
We don’t feel much for Sweet Tooth or its heroine Serena, an entry-level employee of British Intelligence assigned to recruit a writer for their secret propaganda efforts. She’s just not that interesting. Fine, she’s 23 and callow, but Briony in Atonement is 13 and the novel is propelled by the things the child doesn’t know. (Sweet Tooth has a gimmicky explanation for this which we do not find amusing.) The love affairs which set Serena’s story in motion are disposable, and there’s really not a lot at stake. The last-minute mention of Operation Mincemeat reminds us that there are many terrific spy stories out there, but not in here.
What we find really worrisome is the prose. This is a novel by Ian McEwan, who can give us whiplash with a sentence. Bits of Sweet Tooth sound like Facebook updates by a high school classmate you wish you could un-friend. (Yeah there’s an explanation for this, no we’re not buying it.)
If someone else had written this at the start of their career, we’d call it promising. Recommended: The Innocent and Atonement by Ian McEwan. If you want a great spy novel in the same dreary early 70s London setting, there’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarré.