I think this may be a departure from the type of fiction that Ian McEwen has written in the past. It does not possess the heftiness of an epic such as Atonement. In an interview with broadcaster Eleanor Watchtel, the author revealed that the story was suggested to him by a somewhat scandalous program run by the British spy agency, MI5 that contrived to funnel money to writers during the Cold War in the guise of private grants in order to encourage the creation of art that promoted Capitalism over Communism. The novel is narrated by the principal character, Serena Frome who grew up loving fiction but possessed a talent she did not desire for mathematics. This gift allowed her to study at Cambridge but as she had a greater interest in consuming fiction rather than working on her math she barely passed with a fourth. She is further distracted from her studies when she begins an affair with Tony Canning a much older, married man, a professor with a history of having worked as a spy and at times a double agent before and during the Cold War. It turns out that Tony was more interested in wooing her over to spying than to his side of the bed… although he achieved both goals. When Tony’s wife found out about Serena, Tony felt obliged to end the affair and on the rebound Serena accepted employment in a very lowly clerical position with MI5.
The novel gets off to a meandering sort of start, and is easy reading as the author builds the platform for the story’s launch. Serena carries on rather tediously for some one who is supposedly a vivacious, young woman. She does not seem to be too excited about finding her true calling in life. The fact is, beyond reading books and hoping for love she is lost; lacking the passion needed to find a meaningful occupation of any sort. Clearly, if given a choice she would have preferred to spend her life curled up in a chair with a good book and a lover on the side to amuse and to appreciate her. In the interim she had to have a means of earning her living. The story’s pace picks up when she is asked to embark on a mission that would have her bait a promising author, Tom Haley, with some fishy funding and once hooked on her line her job would be to encourage his adherence to Western Capitalist Ideals in so gentle a manner he would never know he had been dragged ashore, filleted, fried and served up as a fitting meal for the English speaking literati. (sorry… I was trying to get an iron frying pan into my metaphor but I’ve already taken it too far to be funny). I don’t want to tell the whole story so I will only add that complications ensue when Serena falls in love with the object of her mission that goes by the code name Sweet Tooth.
I liked the story and I willingly went along for the ride. Then, when Mr. McEwan inserted several of his very well written short stories into the novel I became a little bit suspicious that he might be making fun of me, the reader or just showing off his virtuosity. I’ve felt that way sometimes reading Robertson Davies although I have always admired his writing even when he’s been a bit smug in tone and tests the reader with an unexpected twist to the story that is too clever by far. However, there was a legitimate reason for Serina, to read these stories and for the author to incorporate them into the novel as she was given the task of determining if Tom Haley’s writing was going to be suitably pro-democracy in its outlook. The first of the short stories deals with twin brothers: one a clergyman and the other an atheist. To help him out a bit of a dilemma the atheist brother successfully impersonates his brother the priest. The atheist attracts evil and personal ruin by not being true to himself. He becomes entangled in a net of nasty brutish love. I could not help noting this book is dedicated to the writer Christopher Hitchens, (sadly he passed away in his very early sixties), a devout atheist who was never untrue to himself. …But this is an aside.
The novel wanders a bit here and there and I wondered if that was intentional in so much as Mr. McEwan did not set out with an outline but let the novel follow its own course. There would have been two ways for this story to go: it could be a sinister thriller with menacing intrigues and the suggestion of blood, torture and even death or it could be an adventure with a love story playing a major role on the side. Obviously, the author chose the second route and I think the story evolved in a steady sort of way as he plotted out the details one by one. In my imagination Mr. McEwan got up early every morning and crept down to his kitchen before anyone was up making a cup of good, strong coffee. Then he climbed up to his study in the attic where there was good light winter and summer and sat down to his lap top, opened it and began his writing day. In the beginning the novel was just an idea born out a note he had made to himself some time ago based on that crazy propaganda program. Who would be the protagonist ? … would have to be a young girl, impressionable, very good looking and she would have to be seduced by an older man… better a young woman heroine than a young man hero… it would seem a bit more complicated to have a young man seduced by an older woman and the seducer would have to be a good deal older if he/she was to be a veteran spy of the post war forties and fifties…of course an older woman could have seduced a younger girl or for that matter an older man a younger one but Mr. McEwan probably had some beautiful girl of his acquaintance in mind from the past or the present and it was easy to carry her image around in his head as he imagined himself in the role of her youthful writer/lover. So how to plot it… she loved fiction and devoured everything she could read… was sheltered living at home but could not wait to get away as her father who was…. was… was what? A bishop of course, an Anglican bishop… great incentive to leave home as quickly as possible even if you had to live in penury. So far so good… she gets into Cambridge and catches the attention of one of her professors who is hoping to recruit some young malleable youth into the secret service … he seduces her with worldly pleasures of good food, wine, conversation, a cottage with shrubbery and gentle elderly love making. …but then he leaves her … why? why? why? Well he engineers a scene involving his wife but in truth he is dying and needs to end his last days in peace but his old masters at MI5 offer her a job after he directs her to apply for a position because it turns out he has on occasion been a double agent and the agency decides it would be better to have her come work for them rather than having her floating around on the loose with heaven knows what kind of information she has inadvertently picked up. How could she live in London if she had so little money?… she found three roommates who were rarely home. And so it would go… every morning Mr. McEwan would be sitting around in his dressing gown inventing and plotting every step of the way. … I am sure it was not easy but I am just as sure it must have been a lot of fun as is this novel. My conclusion then is just that; it is a great deal of fun.
One last little observation; at times when I was reading this novel written in the first person singular and in the voice of Serena Frome I felt that unmistakably there was the hint of a man trying to sound like a woman. Later my suspicions are validated by the very Shakespearean technique of a man pretending to be a woman but revealing he is a man. Happy Reading.