By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.95
Ian McEwan’s latest novel is a curious hybrid: part spy novel, part romance, it’s really a work of fiction about fiction.
The central character is Serena Frome, a Cambridge student recruited for Britain’s domestic spy agency in 1972 by a professor and old MI5 hand. After their brief affair, she joins the intelligence service, taking her place among the ranks of similarly well-born young women doing glorified secretarial work. There she is tapped for a mission with the code name Sweet Tooth to secretly funnel money to up-and-coming writers and intellectuals thought to hold a dim view of the Soviet Union.
Her qualifications are her “rather gorgeous” looks and reputation as a voracious reader — “rather well up on modern writing — literature, novels, that sort of thing,” her boss says.
But almost immediately she jeopardizes her career by falling in love with Tom Haley, the writer she’s meant to covertly enlist in MI5’s epic battle against communism.
McEwan bases the espionage plot on actual events during the Cold War, when the CIA surreptitiously funded various cultural enterprises to bolster support for the West. His spy craft is compelling, his love story less so. Serena has the emotional maturity of a teenager and the politics of her parents’ generation. She fancies herself a character out of Jane Austen in a world that’s moved on to Borges, Barth and Pynchon.
Her oft-repeated literary opinions — “I was a simple sort of reader,” she says later on — suggest that one of her primary roles is as a foil for Tom, who has more sophisticated taste. And indeed, the novel is packed with the postmodern tricks Serena professes to hate.
Whether you like the book or not may depend on your view of literature — do you agree with Serena or with McEwan’s alter ego Tom? “I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page,” she says. “He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks.”