Serena is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley for Operation “Sweet Tooth,” MI5’s attempt to manipulate the cultural conversation in England.
Most big-time novelists sooner or later write a novel or two about books and writers, and this is not McEwan’s first iteration. Its true subject is not espionage but, as in Atonement, the porous boundaries between the imaginary and the real — and, as in Atonement, he’s got a large metafictional trick up his sleeve. In other words, if I may indulge in my own meta-nonfictional swerve, Sweet Tooth is ‘a novel about the powerful influence literature can exert on life’ … McEwan, however, has his cake and eats it, until the last chapter keeping us unaware of the metafictional con under way. Instead of flaunting it, in 20th-century spoilsport fashion, he uses his game to reinforce and deepen the pleasurable illusions of reality, thereby satisfying conservative readers like Serena as well as those like Tom with a taste for the literary fun house.
In Ian McEwan’s tricky and captivating new novel Sweet Tooth, he takes as his complex subject the male writer entering a woman’s consciousness (or it might be more accurate in this case to say breaking and entering a woman’s consciousness) … Even the sensitive, artistically attuned, intellectually sophisticated male writer sees a woman in a very different way than she would see herself. The gap McEwan investigates is enormous and fascinating, and if we truly want to understand sexual politics, we need to read, instead of ironic blogs and Caitlin Moran and faux sociology, more novels like this one … McEwan’s meta-fictional trick, his pulling the rug out from under the reader is interesting, because it requires her to reread, rethink, retread the novel.
Ian McEwan’s delicious new novel provides all the pleasures one has come to expect of him: pervasive intelligence, broad and deep knowledge, elegant prose, subtle wit and, by no means least, a singularly agreeable element of surprise … If this is indeed Serena’s story, the telling of it in time becomes part of the mystery, yet another manifestation of McEwan’s fascination with the ownership of narrative and the complicated relationship between imagination and intelligence. Intelligence, that is, in the sense of espionage, information-gathering, dissembling and false clues … We are instructed, right toward the end, about the difference between intelligence and invention and given a superb lesson in how to distinguish between the two.