McEwen’s unusual espionage thriller takes place in the murky setting of London and Brighton, cities on the cusp of change. London, in particular, is gradually becoming far removed from society’s moral restrictions of the 1950s.
Ewan condenses certain aspects of the Sixties and linking his heroine, Serena Frome,
to a new kind of sexual freedom. Serena’s older lover, Professor Tony Canning, recruits her for a low-level job at Mi5.
A speed reader and a lover of literary fiction, Serena has some internal issues typical of young girls of her time and class--issues which become the real focus of McEwan’s novel. Encouraged by Tony’s “little smile of approbation,” Serena announces herself as a trainee Cold Warrior accepting the job with enthusiasm in a transformed world where the old barriers are crumbling from the base.
Obliged to sign and be bound by the strict provisions of the Official Secrets Act, Serena wanders desolate along great Marlborough Street, wondering why it's so unusual for a woman of her age to be approached in that much-described time-honored way. The “grey beards” hedge their bets, never guessing that Canning is making them a gift. The connections are shaky, but McEwan ties them all together in a landscape reeling from the famous betrayals of the Burgess, MacLean and Philby, who dislodged the assumption that a certain class of person is more likely to be loyal to his country than the rest.
While I am usually not a fan of espionage novels, McEwan so cleverly melds his
Cold War elements into Serena’s love affair with a young novelist Tom Haley and her covert efforts to recruit him into the tentacles of Mi5. Traveling to Haley’s Brighton flat, she smells the salty air and gradually becomes
much more intimate with her own private version of him. As she reads Haley's thoughts on sex, deceit, pride and failure, she
reels from a masochistic code of honor. Serena’s first black mark is realizing that people of her level are not supposed to have minds of her own.
In many ways, Sweet Tooth is Serena’s story, seen from different angles and perspectives. At the same time, McEwan’s powers of description are such that all of our senses are
always fully engaged. The author brings to life Carnaby Street of the 1970s: the whining guitar music: the scent of patchouli; the ranks of psychedelic shirts; and the bustling streets of SoHo, an adult playground in red neon shades.
Ambitious and provocative, McEwan unfolds Serena and Haley’s affair in layers so that both we and Serena are privy to Haley’s intimate short stories. This adds fuel to Serena, who for most of the tale lives in her own fantasy world where the realities of her job mix with the wild imaginations of a romantic of her age.