Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

An engaging tale, but McEwan is certainly no Le Carré

On the inside cover of Ian McEwan's 13th full-length book, Peter Kemp of the Sunday Times declares him "the supreme novelist of his generation".

Indeed, so revered is McEwan among the chattering classes, that dissenters are few, and thus John Banville's demolition of McEwan's 2005 novel, Saturday, in the New York Review of Books was dismissed by many worshippers as a vindictive attempt to undermine the reputation of a rival.

But Banville was right about a novel so risibly implausible it asked us to credit that a violent thug who had broken into a neurosurgeon's home would be reduced to tears by a recitation of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach; and that the neurosurgeon would subsequently be permitted to operate on this assailant.

There's a lot of laboriously 'topical' material in his more recent fiction - the fallout from 9/11 in Saturday, global warming concerns in Solar (2010) - but these concerns come across as window dressing rather than as integral to the story or characters.

And thus in Sweet Tooth, which is set in the London and Brighton of the early 1970s, although there are recurring references to petrol shortages, miners' strikes, job losses and IRA atrocities, they seem included merely to evoke a general atmosphere rather than to suggest any deeper malaise.

Certainly, Serena, who's the book's narrator for all but the last 19 pages, seems quite unaffected by the wider world around her - despite the fact that she frets to the reader about political and social injustice and that she works for MI5 as a front for a foundation that seeks to further right-thinking Western opinion.

This, in the manner of the CIA-funded Encounter magazine, provides funds to unsuspecting writers whose political views meet with the approval of their shadowy masters. Serena is asked to recruit one such young novelist and falls in love with him.

We are in John Le Carré territory here and the comparison does McEwan few favours - this is Le Carré-lite, with little real sense of what it means to operate in the twilight universe of espionage.

And by this stage the reader, who's been lulled by Serena's fluently chatty prose but feels cheated at the absence of enlivening incident, has begun to wonder if the author has anything left in store. Well, he has.

Throughout the story, the bookishly traditional Serena has been railing against the post-modern 'trickery' employed by many contemporary novelists in their attempt to subvert expectations, and in the concluding chapter of this novel - narrated by Serena's protege as a letter - McEwan pulls a trick you'll either think fiendishly clever, undermining of all that's gone before, or a callow disregard of the reader's trust.

That revelation might send McEwan acolytes back through the novel to see how he did it, but it made me want to throw the book out the window.

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