By Ian McEwan
(Nan A. Talese)
Ian McEwan is much better company now than he was in the old days. His early novellas, from The Cement Garden (1978) to Black Dogs (1992), were sophisticated forays into horror and perversion. Their pages are populated by incestuous teenagers, a couple bent on sex murder, and—as if by some bizarre logical extension—Nazi rapist Dobermans. The books glisten with crystalline sentences but are cold-blooded affairs. It’s impressive to watch young McEwan take a scalpel to the human condition, but you wouldn’t want to spend too much time alone with him.
In Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001) and Saturday (2005), a more mature novelist permits himself a campfire to ward off the darkness. Whereas once the narratives followed victims, here there are actual heroes: cultured, sensitive men who find themselves pitted against the forces of unreason. McEwan has by now developed a conviction that the rational imagination, of which literary fiction is both product and exemplar, is the true engine of civilized life. He has a proper theme to explore, even if there’s something a little angular at times about the variations played upon it. The Bach-loving brain surgeon squaring off against a deranged thug in Saturday is a case in point. But I mention this only to persuade you I’m capable of a nuanced response. These are proper novels, at once exciting, moving, elegant, and thought-provoking.
The new effort is another example of fine craftsmanship. Sweet Tooth follows a Cambridge graduate who has a brief affair with an older man while he grooms her for service in MI5, Britain’s internal intelligence agency. This is 1973 and, once inducted, Serena Frume finds that women employees are confined to tedious clerical work. Then, for obscure reasons, she is sent undercover on a Cold War propaganda mission. She is to funnel funds to a novelist through a front organization in hopes this emerging talent will produce works denouncing the Soviets. With a predictability that is dramatic rather than dispiriting, Serena and the writer fall in love, and he pens precisely the kind of book her handlers despise. She is caught in a relationship born in deceit, forced to follow the orders of a jealous superior.
Politically naïve and occasionally brusque, Serena is a fully realized and endearingly flawed creation, the kind of middle-class Englishwoman who says, “Sometimes not talking is the best way through a difficulty.” McEwan’s prose is always immaculate, but Serena’s first-person narration is distinctive and convincing. It’s flexible, too, allowing for beautifully phrased passages that remain firmly in character. Samuel Beckett’s sensibility, for example, is “a dispensation in which the human condition was a man lying alone at the end of things, bound only to himself, without hope, sucking on a pebble.” An incorrigible bore is “plunged deeper into the misapprehension that he was interesting.”
Sweet Tooth is a companion to On Chesil Beach (2007), another McEwan romance set in the recent past. The dramas that unfold in these books revolve around social conventions and political conflicts that, when brought back to life, are no less alien for having died only yesterday. Taken in the context of their author’s career, these two fictions make a convincing argument that the aging process isn’t always a downhill plummet. It’s made a much better novelist of Ian McEwan.