To pigeonhole Sweet Tooth
into a specific genre will be an act of folly. In the beginning it gives off the impression of a mere Cold war era spy thriller, then steps with casual ease into the territory of metafiction and in the end it changes tack and becomes a meditation on romance.
But even so it never appears indecisive or loses sight of what it sets out to do - which is to juxtapose several contrasting themes and give us a fast-paced yet compelling human drama unfolding against the bleak backdrop of a 70s Britain.
The heroine, Serena Frome, is the quintessential beautiful spy but not of the kind shown in James Bond movies. She is smart but average, loves reading fiction but is a dilettante. She is almost unsuspectingly recruited into MI5 by her lover, a much older man and a former MI5 operative, and is made part of a project codenamed 'Sweet Tooth', the purpose of which is to fund authors, journalists, academicians willing to publish writings echoing a largely anti-Soviet, pro-Capitalist rhetoric.
She is asked to bring under the ambit of 'Sweet Tooth', a rising new literary talent named Tom Haley and the first meeting of these two characters sets into motion an interconnected chain of events involving lies, charades, passion, jealousy, disillusionment, eventually culminating in a terrific climax which is undoubtedly the most memorable part of the narrative.
If one blocks out all the chatter about Cold war politics, Soviet persecution of academics, writers and journalists, Britain and MI5's almost sycophantic willingness to please America at all costs, what remains is an ode to the spirit of creative freedom. Because in course of the narrative, the 'Sweet Tooth' project derails and its key objectives of fuelling anti-Communist propaganda fail spectacularly when Tom ends up writing an award-winning novella denouncing a Capitalist world order.
Thus what McEwan seems to want to highlight here is the conflict between the political establishment of any country and its literary and academic circles. While essentially one side seeks to subtly influence and control everything, the other side possesses the power of remaining unaffected and even defiant, but at the peril of personal and professional ruin.
And the reader is left with a sense of the human quest for liberty, be it creative or political or religious or social, and how it cannot be subdued or kept under leash.
Tom Haley and Serena's affair forms the backbone of the story and adds an almost spiritual dimension to it - their mutual deceit merge with their feelings for one another, melding into a fiery yet unique kind of love which ultimately proves to be much stronger than the crude manipulations and deceptions practised by the world around them.