This is a novel that hooked me on the very first page. The voice of the first-person narrator, Serena Frome, is (to my tastes anyway) incredibly engaging and believable. That in itself is ironic, it turns out, but for reasons that won’t be clear till you’ve finished the novel. So lay the ending aside for a moment: at the beginning, a woman named Serena Frome starts telling you a story about something that happened when she was young, and her voice drew me into the story right away.
Serena is an otherwise unexceptional girl — bright, English, upper-middle-class (the daughter of a Bishop, though not at all religious herself) — until she gets involved in espionage. Which sounds an awful lot more exciting than it is. One of the most intriguing things about this novel is that McEwan is able to write what sounds like it ought to be a spy story, and to put virtually nothing interesting about spying into it, and still make the story compelling — not as a spy novel, but as a character study.
It’s the early 1970s, the Cold War rages on and off, and Serena gets recruited to work at MI-5 after she has an affair with an older man who did some intelligence work in his younger days. There, she becomes involved in a project called “Sweet Tooth.” It’s hard to believe that in the midst of the Cold War, MI-5 did anything as dull as taking on the role of an arts-granting agency in order to fund the work of writers who appeared promisingly anti-Communist — but apparently this stuff really happened, and Serena’s task is to offer a tantalizing cash stipend to an up-and-coming novelist without letting him know there’s government money behind the “Foundation” she represents. Of course she falls in love with the novelist, and of course her secret comes out, and the resulting complication has very little to do with Cold War-era spying and everything to do with the lies we tell ourselves and others.
It’s also a story about storytelling, which you might expect if one of the main characters is a writer, or if, like me, you’ve only ever read one other book by McEwan and that was Atonement. Serena falls into the Sweet Tooth job because she’s an avid reader, though her university degree was in math. She reads widely both in popular and literary fiction, but has strong opinions about what writers should and shouldn’t do. Partway through the novel she reads her lover’s unpublished manuscript and is angered by a metafictional twist at the end: she believes authors should not intrude into their stories and should keep up their implied contracts with their readers. If you miss that clear red-flag warning (or if you didn’t read Atonement), you’ll be unprepared for the direction the book takes at the end. I was forewarned, but that did nothing to stop the pages turning quickly as I raced to the end of this novel, enjoying every twist and turn along the way.