I said at the end of August I was going to revisit Sweet Tooth after a period of reflection. Having read a couple of interesting reviews of this novel, as well as some commentary on Atonement, which although utterly different from this novel in terms of setting has some interesting parallels, I have what I hope are some clearer thoughts on this novel, and in particular what McEwan does here.
To recap, Sweet Tooth tells the story of a relatively naive young woman, Serena Frome, going to university, having affairs, starting work with MI5, and meeting an author. The big twist at the end of the novel is that instead of this being a first person narrative from Serena’s perspective, it is written by her author boyfriend in a mixture of anger and disappointment when he discovers that their relationship was based upon a lie – she was initially sent to meet him by MI5 to involve him unwittingly in a half baked attempt to win the cultural cold war. His exposure as a dupe is done with his collaboration.
This is all very clever – all of the inconsistencies in “Serena’s” earlier narrative are immediately explained. There is an under-current of distaste for example in her descriptions of her earlier love affairs which only makes sense when we realise they are as imagined by her current lover. The portrait of her younger self as not as clever as she thinks she is, and frankly just a bit too generous with her affections, suddenly makes sense if they are a portrait by a jealous boyfriend, not a self portrait.
Is McEwan doing anything different here from what he did in Atonement – completely reframing a story and making the reader realise that this is all just a story, the people aren’t real, these things did not really happen to them despite all the earlier attempts to give the narrative verisimilitude?
Where I am left feeling uncomfortable by this novel is in the author’s portrayal of Serena’s approach to literature. She is a mathematics graduate, but reads voraciously, indiscriminately, and has little or no interest in literary theory. To her books are just stories, to be consumed in a day and discarded. She – and remembering this is through the cynical and hurt lens of her author boyfriend of course – is not the kind of reader we think her boyfriend would want. And not really the kind of reader we would want to be. But have we been? Have we rushed through Sweet Tooth to its denounement without fully engaging with the text, without spotting the clues that Serena’s narrative isn’t as straightforward as we are led to believe? Are we guilty as charged?
In a recent interview McEwan has portrayed this novel as a traditional love story, suggesting that the central relationship will survive the trauma of deception and the subsequent damning judgement that is handed down. I certainly did not read the novel’s ending in that way – there is little to suggest there will be a “happy” ending here other than our traditional desire to see one. But the romance is not really the driving force at the heart of the novel. Incidentally this is also definitely not a novel about espionage either, despite the setting – no spying is done, and anyone picking this up expecting a spy story will be deeply disappointed.
If not a romance, nor a spy story, then what is this? At the risk of sounding pretentious, this is a meta-fiction – a fiction about fiction. Of its kind it is one of the more sophisticated (yet deceptively simple), ambiguous species of novel, comparable to The Magus for example.