Ian McEwan’s “Sweet Tooth” is ostensibly a spy novel, but this tale centers not on highly sensitive state secrets, but on the fuzzy fault line between fiction and reality. The protagonist, Serena Frome, fresh out of college in 1972, finds herself recruited for MI5, the British spy agency, by Tony Canning, a professor and former spy operative she met through a lover while she was a student at Cambridge. Canning, who is married, becomes her lover and sponsors her for an entry-level job at M15, before abruptly breaking off the affair.
Serena’s first assignment is to participate in an operation called Sweet Tooth, which aims to use a bogus foundation to fund the work of writers who have shown an anti-communist and pro-capitalist bent in their writings. She is assigned to cultivate Tom Haley, a promising young writer. Critics have pointed out that Haley seems to be an alter ego for McEwan. They both earned degrees in English at the University of Sussex. The early work of both writers was dark and twisted. Both writers worked with Tom Maschler as their editor and knew the author Martin Amis, who makes a cameo appearance.
In the spy game, agents lead a double life. The persona they show when they are digging for information is a fiction. Similarly, Serena engages in a risky pursuit, falling in love with Tom Haley. They quickly fall into a passionate affair, but Serena cannot bring herself to tell her lover she is a spy. As her love for Tom grows, Serena is caught in an impossible dilemma: the emotions she feels for Tom are authentic, but based on a fraud she has perpetrated on him.
There is a needy, desperate quality to Serena that makes her suspect in the reader’s eyes. By her own admission, she was a mediocre student majoring in math at Cambridge, where she came to realize her true passion was literature. Her taste in books, however, is questionable as at one point she states that “Valley of the Dolls” is as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. Her first love turns out to be a homosexual and her second love, Canning, is an older, married man. She develops a brief crush on an MI5 agent with the memorable name, Maximillen Greatorex, a socially awkward chap who eventually plays a pivotal part in the story.
McEwan plays Senera’s dilemma between her professional obligations and deepening love for Haley for all it’s worth. Though he reveals the outcome on the first page of the story, the unraveling of Serena’s double life unfolds through a series of cleverly plotted events that leave the reader surprised.
A major theme here is the line between life and art. Serena prefers novels with realistic plots and characters to loftier, high-minded literature. She states early on, “I believe that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever is made up. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for double agents.”
In light of the fate that would befall poor Serena, her words foreshadowed a cruel irony.