Top authors who won't be at the Booker dinner

Ian McEwan. (Shaun Curry, AFP)

Ian McEwan. (Shaun Curry, AFP)

Spy novel leaves you hanging

(Jonathan Cape)

A reliable pleasure in Ian ­McEwan's work has always been the brilliance of his openings. Whether he is aiming for the big set piece, as in the ballooning scene of Enduring Love, or something more like the casual stealth of the couple's afternoon awakening in The Comfort of Strangers, his tales cast their spells quickly and ­irresistibly.

One reads him, of course, with the expectation of a story in which something terrible will occur and that expectation is now a part of the alchemy. Fraught questions begin seething almost immediately in the reader's mind. Who is going to be harmed? Will the harm be emotional, physical or both? In what richly inventive ways will the setting – Dorset on England's south coast, south of France's wilderness – facilitate the inevitable crisis? And what kinds of meaning are going to be implicated in it?

The new novel, Sweet Tooth, is no exception. Set mostly in London during the early 1970s, it is told (in hindsight from the present day) by Serena Frome, a bishop's daughter brought up in the genteel "walled garden" of a cathedral precinct. We learn in the first paragraph that she was sent on a secret mission 40 years ago and it ended badly for her and her lover.

Almost 100 pages pass before we discover the precise nature of this mission; a more leisurely prelude than usual, but just as mesmerising as its predecessors. Every page adds some new hint that deepens or adjusts our sense of what is going to be at stake in Serena's story.

Crying out for love and redemption

In the post-1960s England of strikes, bomb blasts, oil crises, Cold War escalation, ideological grandstanding and generally impending anarchy, old-fashioned Serena reads Solzhenitsyn and pledges herself against the evils of communism. A history tutor at Cambridge University – an older man named Canning, who has a mysterious scar – recruits her, first as his mistress, then as a spy for the United Kingdom's counter-intelligence and security agency MI5. He refines her cold warrior instincts with heavy doses of Churchill and disciplines her patriotism with an informed sense of England's glorious past.

We seem to be heading for a story of civilisation versus barbarism; the "seedy, careless insurrection" (as Serena puts it) of the 1970s played off against the self-sacrificing heroism of the World War II generation, with Canning's mystery somewhere at the centre. But no: Canning dumps Serena with sudden and (to her) inexplicable cruelty, disappearing out of the story for a long time. And, as Serena takes up her career at MI5, other themes emerge. An office intrigue starts up, bringing the subject of sexual politics into play (the pervasive condescension of men towards women in that not-so-long-ago era is reconstructed with painful accuracy). A surveillance operation by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the paramilitary group who fought to remove British rule from Ireland, suggests terrorism may turn out to be the main focus, with perhaps a connection to Middle East tensions and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Totalitarian instincts
Meanwhile, frequent allusions to the Eastern Bloc keep the topic of totalitarianism firmly in view and, as Serena begins to demonstrate some totalitarian instincts of her own (she opens a file on a headmaster who attended a meeting of his local communist party), it looks as if some kind of study in East-West political symmetries might be afoot. Then again, a mysteriously moved bookmark in Serena's room tilts the story towards something more paranoid: Is the young spy being spied on?

With all these possibilities in the air, it seems certain that the mission, one way or another, will be intricately bound up with the more significant conflicts of that discordant era. Given McEwan's ability to make riveting fiction out of English politics (not easy), it would be hard to imagine anyone better equipped to write such a story. When Serena is finally summoned to the fifth floor, we accompany her with serious interest and suspense.

It comes as a surprise – amusing but faintly disconcerting – that one of the first things the five men waiting up there ask her to do is to rank the novelists William Golding, Kingsley Amis and David Storey in order of merit. Serena's bookishness, it turns out, is what interests them. Their project is to co-opt some writers of a leftish but non-communist bent, with a view to influencing the British intelligentsia away from its increasingly anti-Western bias. They have some journalists and academics already lined up and now they have decided they need a novelist.

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The plan is for Serena to pose as the representative of a cultural foundation with money to bestow and reel in some promising newcomer. The person they have in mind is a PhD student at Sussex University on England's south coast, who has published some well-received short stories along with some articles criticising the Soviet bloc.

One resists, slightly, the literary turn. Still, manipulation of the intelligentsia has a deep history on both sides of the Iron Curtain: the Stasi had a whole department dedicated to infiltrating the peace movement and – as Serena's handlers point out – the CIA bankrolled Encounter magazine, so perhaps the tale may yet go somewhere deep and dangerous.

But as Serena begins reading the writer's stories, summarising them at length in her own text, it begins to look, unexpectedly, as if the book's real subject is, in fact, going to be its own navel, or at least its own author. The young writer's name is Tom Haley, but aside (one assumes) from the compromising entanglement with an MI5 operative, it might as well be Ian McEwan.

Most of Haley's stories turn out to be versions of the dazzling pieces that launched McEwan's own career in the 1970s. The career itself, from Sussex graduate to prize-winning young novelist, bears a close resemblance to McEwan's own.

Trip down memory lane
It is not just a case of thrifty recycling of material, or some jokey glimpse of the director in his own movie: Haley-McEwan's debut as a writer now takes centre stage in the novel with Serena (who falls in love with him even as she suborns him with tainted MI5 lucre) chronicling his literary tastes and habits, his reactions to his own growing success, his early encounters with writers Martin Amis, Ian Hamilton (who set up the British literary magazine The New Review), Tom Maschler and so on.

It is unclear to me exactly what McEwan is after. Sometimes he seems to be enjoying the trip down memory lane purely for its own sake, sketching his old pals and their hangouts with nostalgic affection. Sometimes he seems to want to give his younger self a good mugging – for his youthful affectations (Haley starts living on Chablis and oysters, buys an Asprey silver ice bucket and announces that "all men should have a 'library' of white shirts") and perhaps also for some more obscure sense of having let himself become a creature of the "establishment".

Sometimes he seems interested in using the relationship between spy and author as a metaphor for the intricate dance of concealment and trust that goes on between a reader and a writer. Like Henry Perowne in Saturday, Serena strongly dislikes novels that play games with their readers – "no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art", she declares; "no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary" – so there is an elaborate joke at her expense (but to what end?) as she finds herself at the heart of just such a novel.

Depending on your tastes, you may find these recursive twists and turns delicious. It is certainly all fairly good fun to read and the consolidation of the plot around the questions of how Serena is going to square her love with her treachery and whether Haley's dystopian novel (based on McEwan's story Two Fragments) is going to win the Austen prize and, if so, whether his secret debt to MI5 is going to come out is gripping in its own way – even if that turns out to be more John Fowles than John le Carré. But these questions do not in any plausible way substitute for the earlier, more momentous political questions.

No doubt it is callow to hold a writer to his word, or his implied word, but after that scene on the fifth floor I could not help feeling like Echo in the myth when Narcissus catches sight of himself in the pool. "What about the IRA?" I heard myself bleating inwardly as the book began fixating on its own reflection. What about the PLO? The Cold War? Civilisation and barbarity? You promised. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

James Lasdun's It's Beginning to Hurt is published by Vintage

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