Feb. 18th, 2013

aslant: (elle s'amuse)
7. Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan (2012)


From page one, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) tells you how her story will play out: a spy, she was sacked 18 months into her job, "having disgraced myself and ruined my lover." But the unravelling of her life as an MI6 operative in 1970s London is still filled with tension, not to mention unexpected beauty, and it made me mutter out loud "oh god, oh god" in dread several times. Then there was the final denouement, which made me sit up straight and curse McEwan with respect and shock -- there is a peculiar identity-doubling-back trick pulled narratively, but not cheaply, and definitely not the way you might expect, and it's amazing. The book is also much more than a simple spy story. You get Serena's failtastic Cambridge years, her affairs, her distant voice, her voracious reading habits*, her observations on the state of sexism in her Majesty's secret service, her scrimping along on meagre pay washing her hair in the sink of her bedsit. And you get the years of the Troubles, of bombs and oil shortages. And you get her love affair, in 1970s Brighton, with Chablis and oysters and typewriters, as the tension simmers in the background.

Overall, the book brings you into the classic late-Cold War era Bond world, except instead of glamorous people sipping cocktails in a fancy bar you are in the musty basement processing boring files with your fellow underpaid drones wondering what the point of it is. But then the spy stuff emerges from the paperwork. It feels very authentic, and you get an interesting sense of the self-importance of the MI6 world of that era, its classism, its weird internal rituals and stuffiness, as seen by an observer who toes the party line but isn't entirely sure why, as the book goes on, though that's not really her main conflict. I don't know if I'm giving an adequate impression of why I loved this book so much...one blurb compared the story to a Russian doll -- very apt. Layers and layers of intrigue. It drew me in quickly, it was suspenseful and complex, and I came away with even more respect for the author. It's incredibly good, without feeling boringly good for you. Please read this. You'll have fun. I can't recommend it highly enough.


* Including a book review column, and an incident which echoed one of my own tendencies in book reviewing: she moves from chatty confessional to thoughtful, and loses sight of what she was hired for. That was a rather uncomfortable mirror. Of course, dear LJ friends, you can't fire me if you don't like it. I'm writing for me, so just scroll on by.

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