I have a confession to make before anything else. My purchase of this book was heavily influenced by its cover. It featured a stunning blonde in a stunning red dress, on the stairs of what looked like the interiors of a mysterious building. In fact, I spent quite a few minutes trying to decide whether the blond looked more like Scarlett Johansson or Rosie Huntington Whitley, and gave up that pursuit only when I realised I’d more or less be equally happy with either.
Now that that’s out-of-the-way, let’s get down to business. Whenever you’re reading a book that’s written by a very popular author, there is usually this faint voice in your head that keeps telling you that you’re most likely reading a good book; and you’re probably missing something if you don’t like it so far. I have tried Ian McEwan before, but I have always given up halfway. This time I doggedly read through till the end, out of curiosity and determination more than anything else.
The story is about a pretty girl named Serena (Yes, the blond featured on the cover) who ends up working for MI-5 during the 1960s through an odd turn of events, and is eventually assigned to an operation called, yes, “Sweet Tooth”. This operation involves sponsoring writers who are critical, but not excessively, of Communist ideals and claimed achievements. This, was to be a “Slow Burn” thing in MI5’s Cold War propaganda activities. Serena is assigned a writer, Tom Haley, who she takes absolutely no time in falling for, and the real story kicks off from there.
Despite the immensely slow pace of the novel, I have to admit I enjoyed the multiple layers and rather diverse cast of characters. Also, this is probably the first book I’ve read which describes the 60s and 70s in U.K from a different angle than the typical 70s perspective of mad abandon. Serena, who herself is an avid reader of fiction, provides some real insight into the literary world as well as those of music, pub culture, government functioning and social and political turmoil.
It is perhaps in those angles that the novel seems more vivid than in its actual storyline. That, ironically is what’s both good and bad about this book. It is an intimate and affectionate memoir of England in those decades, a good spy novel it’s not.
P.S ~ Ian McEwan has been open about a lot of autobiographical elements featured in the book, and those have generated quite a bit of speculation. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. An author’s writings are usually the only part of his life I am concerned about.