Sweet Tooth; Ian McEwan, 2012

by juno on February 1, 2013

sweettoothAt the end—or so I’d hoped, anyway—of a dreary and relentless sinus infection, when the second round of antibiotics had started to kick in (this was long before the third round) and the pain that had held my face and forehead in its searing claws released its grip enough that I could read again, some benevolent god of books in the guise of a kind friend threw me a bone—a large one: Ian McEwan’s latest, Sweet Tooth. I confess that after a run-in with McEwan a decade or more ago, I stopped picking up his books. The chill that emanated from the one I read was enough. Technical brilliance is well and good, but I want warmth, too, fleshy and palpable. I even skipped Atonement, with my often unfounded mistrust of “popular” books. (Never fear, I can be convinced later.) But this one… It was lent to me crisp and new in its beautiful honey-toned jacket, and the set-up was irresistible: Oxford, London, Cold War, spies, a novelist, love. Sweet Tooth pushes through warm to hot, and talking of bones, throws one after another, a whole rattling pile of them, to a reader such as I, a reader who finds a side of herself described in the first person early in the book itself:

My needs were simple…. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say “Marry me” by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between….

Hmm, can you spot any metafiction coming? Is this Chekhov’s gun? Or will he turn our expectation on its ear? I won’t tell you. Have the fun of reading it yourself, and perhaps rereading whole chunks of it the minute you finish it, as I did, flipping from section to section to admire McEwan’s clever craftsmanship.

amsterdamSweet Tooth gave me the feeling it’s so nice to have about an author: I’d follow him anywhere, or almost. I went out to the studio to see what else we had of his on the shelf, and picked up the one that I thought my sweetheart had been raving about. Halfway through the slim and juicy book, Amsterdam, I realized I was reading the one that had put me off in the first place. But the writing was so fine, and one wants, sometimes, to have a visit with a former self, to see what one might have been thinking in a different time of life. This time through the ways the characters betray themselves and each other seemed silly, not quite believable—rogue doctors, indeed—and hence, they did not have the same power to chill. It’s worth reading anyway—the guy can write a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter. But if you can only read one, go for Sweet Tooth. Snuggle up with Ian. Let him whisk your cares away.

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