Sweet Tooth is a literary spy novel, both in the sense that it’s an espionage story told by a literary writer and because it’s an espionage story that, at its heart, is about literature. Set in the early 1970s against a backdrop of IRA bombings, Cold War anxiety, and labor unrest, the book follows a young, pretty MI5 recruit named Serena Frome who gets sucked into a decidedly low-stakes intelligence caper. Anyone looking for John le Carré-style intrigue will be disappointed. There’s no clandestine slink through East Berlin, no sniffing out of Soviet moles. Instead, Frome embarks on an unremarkable undercover mission to financially support a young writer who’s shown flashes of unfashionable anticommunism.
It quickly turns out that the budding novelist — and soon-to-be love interest, of course — has an awful lot in common with McEwan himself. As things inevitably get complicated, McEwan has a lot of fun digging into (and taking digs at) his own past, even enlisting old pal Martin Amis, first publisher Tom Maschler, and early mentor Ian Hamilton as characters. Sweet Tooth offers enough atmosphere and forward motion to compensate for the story’s slightness (and for an unnecessary twist ending that feels forced). It also provides McEwan with plenty of space to ruminate on writers, writing, and the power of stories — both the kind in books and those that we spin in real life. B+