It’s a good thing art is not what you watch in a cinema with a huge bowl of popcorn on one side and a plastic cup of Coke on the other. Because if that was the case, I would swiftly dismiss Sweet Tooth as the dullest, weakest novel of McEwan and be done with it. And maybe that is exactly what I would have done were I to write this review while still reading the novel or a week after finishing it. Good art, however, is different. It hijacks your attention and your time. And, most importantly, it has that insidious staying power that keeps working its way into your brain soon afterwards.
Having said that, Sweet Tooth is not a great novel. It is topical, it is clever, it is well-written. The problem is – it rarely goes beyond that.
In fact, I would still stick to my initial point that McEwan’s new novel is a merely good book written by a great writer. You only need to read one page of Sweet Tooth, aloud or otherwise, to feel that simple yet masterful pulse of a perfect English sentence. And, as it always goes with McEwan, you will hear your brain purring in satisfaction when, for instance, having a new sex partner is compared to learning a new card game. So no, it is not about the writing (McEwan’s style is still that recognizable and highly effective combination of ‘no-nonsense’ and ‘subtle’); it’s the substance I’m after.
Serena Frome is the one telling the story. From her family background to her taste in literature to her academic achievements, the girl is so ordinary it’s exasperating. And yet she does have an Anglican bishop for a father. She does read an absolute monstrous amount of books. She does show some modest talent for maths. All of which adds up to an irrevocably one-dimensional character who, nonetheless, gets to work as the lowest of the low in MI5 thanks to a rather unlikely love affair with an elderly Cambridge professor. British Security Service is a cold and alien organization that is supposed to swallow Serena up with all the paperwork and icy, high-brow indifference. Unlike her only female friend, Shirley, she simply doesn’t have enough healthy cynicism or sense of humour to fight off any of that. Something changes, however, when Serena is included into a secret project codenamed Sweet Tooth, which is where Serena’s good looks and love for literature really come into play.
A spy novel then. Interestingly, Sweet Tooth does for the genre pretty much what Martin Amis’ (who actually appears in this novel) Night Train did for the detective story genre: it skims it and plays with it and then condenses it into a smart little thing that ends up being neither here nor there. The characters are so flimsy and uninteresting they barely exist (women in particular) – so much so that when you feel McEwan is making a comment on feminism, it comes off feeble and quickly gets sucked back into sand. Serena Frome, for her part, is a very unlikable main character. I could of course spend a few tedious hours justifying why she had to be so bland and mundane, but can that really justify the rather bland and mundane plot that wants to get by on the premise that there is a twist at the end (because otherwise this would be a real downer), one that is supposed to put things right? I don’t have to mention any of the genre’s biggest names here (“we live in the shadows of giants”, according to McEwan’s own words), but for a spy novel this is unforgivably dry. And even when the twist finally arrives (and it’s an arrival, not a spine-tingling snap), my excitement quickly vanishes under the heavy, plodding weight of 300 pages that proceeded it. I feel shortchanged.
To be completely fair, McEwan hasn’t properly intrigued me since the hugely underrated Saturday, and the odd retelling of his own old short stories throughout Sweet Tooth only proves that there’s now some kind of void where new plots have to be. This novel, remember, is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, and while that can only be viewed as a great gesture, Sweet Tooth just lacks the exhilarating drive of that late, great man. Because style or not, take away the name, and what you are left with is a moderately successful novel that (with some luck) could be made it into a modestly successful film.
Regardless of all my criticism, though, the novel did leave a good taste in my mouth. Sour taste, not sweet, but that I guess makes sense. McEwan’s great status is not in doubt, and he manages to end it all beautifully and make every word you’ve read painfully meaningful: in this post-Snowden world, how small is a man? And how small can a man really be? It’s one of those books: you don’t get too much pleasure while reading it, but after time its tentacles are felt well deep inside. It’s that staying power. God knows, maybe it is all about that brief final sentence, full of desperate and anguished hope: “Dearest Serena, it’s up to you”. This is it, I guess, that spine-tingling snap you’ve missed earlier.