With his new novel, set in the world of espionage, Ian McEwan looks set to have his biggest success since 2001's "Atonement," and deservedly so. Both books feature eloquent and convincing female narrator/protagonists and have the same sly concerns: the uses and misuses of the imagination.
The setting of "Sweet Tooth," however, is a far cry from the 1930s country-house intrigue and World War II redemptive heroics of "Atonement." It's the early 1970s, and the U.K is a mess. A near-perfect storm of woes -- economic decline, industrial unrest, the Irish "Troubles" -- seem to have pushed post-imperial Britain to the brink of an "inglorious revolution." And there is still the Soviet Union to contend with.
Serena Frome ("rhymes with plume" -- a detail worth mulling over) has just graduated from Cambridge University with an indifferent degree in mathematics. The "Oxbridge" axis is the traditional recruitment pool for Britain's intelligence services, but when Serena feels the proverbial "hand on the shoulder," her selection is complicated by her romantic involvement with her sponsor, the enigmatic Tony Canning, and the antipathy of many Cold War warriors to the entry of women into the intelligence community.
Serena joins MI-5, Britain's homeland security service, which is just as stuffy as MI-6, the CIA equivalent -- without the perks and perils of foreign assignments. Serena's mission brings her no farther than the seaside town of Brighton, but "Sweet Tooth" still has a wonderful "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"-ish atmosphere; Leconfield House, MI-5's HQ, is all snobbery and secondhand smoke. And the more McEwan unpacks his story, the more tightly he weaves "the fabric of deception."
Serena goes to the south coast to entangle an unwitting young writer named Tom Haley in a half-baked scheme to make literature serve ideology. With their Russian opponents, American allies and MI-6 rivals all using culture as a weapon, MI-5 is anxious not to get left behind. Serena has a lot of catching up to do herself, and the Haley affair, in all senses of the word, is a belated education in close reading, both emotional and textual.
One of the great pleasures of the novel is the presence of so many real figures from the 1970s British literary scene, which was as vibrant as the economy was shaky. McEwan tips his hat, stylishly, to his mentors Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury, early editor Ian Hamilton, energetic publisher Tom Maschler and dynamic contemporary Martin Amis. But it is Serena's own literary hero, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who makes, from the wings of the novel, arguably the wisest point: "Woe to the nation whose literature is disturbed by the intervention of power."
What follows from that sonorous warning is a story set in a bitter climate, but one told with such poise and craft that the novel is, one has to say, ultimately a sweet read.
Robert Cremins, author of "A Sort of Homecoming," teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.