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Updated Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 07:01 AM

'Sweet Tooth': Ian McEwan's novel of spying, writing and love

By by Moira Macdonald
Special to The Seattle Times

'Sweet Tooth'

by Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 321 pp., $26.95

Ian McEwan's latest novel, "Sweet Tooth," is a story of spying and of reading; two activities that blur together for us as we lose ourselves in the book. For what is reading fiction, really, but spying — gazing at a life that isn't ours; observing characters moving through their plots, rarely knowing that they're being watched?

We gaze over the shoulder of Serena, the book's heroine, as she reads short stories written by up-and-coming young writer and journalist Tom Haley; they're books within a book, a page-turning hall of mirrors.

Serena, our first-person narrator, is herself a spy; recruited by the British intelligence agency MI5 shortly after her graduation from Cambridge. It's 1972, in a jittery Cold War London and a world that's becoming, Serena notes, "seriously disposable." (Paper tissues are "becoming ubiquitous," replacing dependable old-school hankies.)

Though first mired in clerical work, Serena is soon given a more intriguing assignment: In a project code-named Sweet Tooth, the agency plans to secretly identify and fund writers whose beliefs are in line with the government's agenda, in the hopes that those values might be reflected in the writer's work.

Serena, posing as an official from a nonprofit foundation, must persuade Tom to accept the stipend, making sure he has no suspicions of its real source. He agrees; she watches him, he watches her — and just like that, they fall in love.

We know this won't turn out well: The book's opening paragraph has Serena telling us how she "disgraced myself and ruined my lover" 40 years ago, with the story told in flashback. But McEwan, a contemporary master of narrative (if you haven't read his brilliant "Atonement," you have some mesmerizing late-night reading in store), brings suspense and wit to the telling, along with a third-act surprise that feels exactly right.

And there's an irresistible thread running through "Sweet Tooth": that of reading as a compulsive urge (to satisfy a sweet tooth, you might say), and of writing as a revelation of someone's true — or invented — self. Twenty-two-year-old Serena, who studied math in college but yearned to major in literature, is a perpetual devourer of both highbrow and lowbrow fiction. She reads rapidly, "looking for a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favorite old shoes."

Even her metaphors are bookish: She describes Tony, a middle-aged lover from her college days, as having "a yellowish look, like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes."

When she gets the assignment to investigate Tom, Serena studies his fiction before meeting him, troubled that she can read his work but not "read" him. What do we know of an author from reading his fiction, she wonders — there's an intimacy to the act, but how do you measure it, as a mathematician would? And what does it mean to fall in love with the writing first, then the person second? We experience Tom's stories through Serena's perceptions; she paraphrases, with only occasional direct quotes, leaving us unsure of exactly what she's reading. Are the stories brilliant, or is this young woman finding what she wants to see there?

As Serena reads Tom and we read McEwan, taking pleasure in each layer, "Sweet Tooth" moves elegantly toward its inevitable conclusion: Trust — in life, and in narrative fiction — is hard-earned, and surprisingly elusive.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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