Draw me a what’s-it cube

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 323 pp, £18.99, August 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09737 6

A penis in pickle, and a dreadful wife made to vanish into another dimension by means of an esoteric yoga pose. A narrator who rapes and murders his wife, gratified that the two climaxes coincide (‘I came as she died. That much I can say with pride. I know her death was a moment of intense pleasure to her’). When he wakes up he vomits on the corpse, a reflex of horror and remorse that amounts to a further assault. Ian McEwan’s first reputation (in the 1970s) was as a writer of scrupulously perverse short stories, an output which placed him in a loose grouping with Martin Amis, labelled the ‘neo-nasties’. The nastiness has long since been disowned though the occasional glint of relished cruelty survives – a body part under the furniture in Enduring Love, an almost witty bomb blast in Atonement – to prevent the reader from feeling too cosy.

Any residual nastiness in the new novel Sweet Tooth has been curiously displaced, onto the cover of the book. I don’t mean the photographic image, which shows a glamorous woman in a red dress, paperwork in her hand (plausibly a file or official document), looking over her shoulder at an ominous male presence at the end of a corridor. I mean the texture of the actual lamination used on the dust jacket, almost sticky yet almost slimy, creating a subliminal urge to wash the hands that have been in contact with it. This is an effect no ebook can hope to duplicate.

The blurb of Sweet Tooth amplifies the clear genre signals of intrigue and danger sent by the cover image (the back panel shows the same corridor, with the man in a slightly more neutral pose, though the woman has disappeared), and brings issues of reliability into play, though with a twist hinting at romantic possibilities: ‘Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage … trust no one.’ Everything conspires to promise a high-class thriller, though the 1970s setting suggests murky dealings – with John le Carré being thanked, under the non-pen name of David Cornwell, for ‘irresistible reminiscences’ – rather than any particular glamour.

Serena Frome (the pronunciation of her name, Froom, poshly at odds with its spelling), both intelligent and beautiful, is the daughter of a bishop. Originally her gift is for maths, a subject she finds easy, though she is also a compulsive reader of fiction. Urged to take her talent further by her unassertive mother in a rare moment of push, she studies maths at Cambridge. The experience is a dead end for her academically, her mathematical powers showing up as modest in this unsparingly competitive context, but other options open up thanks to her affair with an older man, a history don. After graduation she is recruited by MI5, and in due course joins an operation called Sweet Tooth, which discreetly channels secret funds to writers who can be expected, without actual manipulation and in ignorance of the source of subsidy, to promote suitable values. Most are writers of non-fiction, but it’s Serena’s job to recruit a short-story writer with real potential as a novelist. The choice falls on T. H. (Tom) Haley.

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