'Sweet Tooth' fills fiction with fiction

Published: Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 7AANDE

Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.95, 320 pages

Ian McEwan's latest novel, "Sweet Tooth," is a curious hybrid. Part spy novel, part romance, it's a work of fiction about fiction.

The central character is Serena Frome, a Cambridge student recruited for Britain's domestic spy agency in 1972 by a professor and old MI5 hand. After their brief affair, she joins the intelligence service, taking her place among the ranks of similarly well-born young women doing glorified secretarial work.

There she is tapped for a mission with the code name Sweet Tooth to secretly funnel money to up-and-coming writers and intellectuals thought to hold a dim view of the Soviet Union.

Her qualifications are her looks and her reputation as a voracious reader – "rather well up on modern writing – literature, novels, that sort of thing," her boss says.

Almost immediately she jeopardizes her career by falling in love with Tom Haley, the writer she's meant to covertly enlist in MI5's battle vs. communism.

McEwan bases the espionage plot on actual Cold War events, when the CIA surreptitiously funded various cultural enterprises to bolster support for the West.

His spy craft is compelling, his love story less so. Serena has the emotional maturity of a teenager and the politics of her parents' generation. She fancies herself a character out of Jane Austen in a world that's moved on to Borges, Barth and Pynchon.

McEwan embeds narratives within narratives, undermines his narrator and injects real-life people and events into this fictional world.

Whether you like the book may depend on your view of literature – will you agree with Serena or with McEwan's alter ego, Tom?

"I liked life as I knew it re-created on the page," she says. "He said it wasn't possible to re-create life on the page without tricks."

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