Jonathan Cape £18.99
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SERENA FROOME ("rhymes with plume") is the daughter of an
Anglican bishop: "Our father's belief in God was muted and
reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just
sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and
install us in a comfortable Queen Anne house." It is a comfortable
position from which she reaches, first, Cambridge University, and
then the arms of her history professor, who grooms her for a
position at MI5.
A factotum at first, she is discovered by her seniors to be a
fan of contemporary fiction (the novel is set in the 1970s). Since
this is the Cold War, MI5 is interested in promoting authors who
have a keen sense of the value of democracy and freedom, but to do
so openly would provoke the wrath of the public and the authors
themselves. Froome is the middle-woman who arranges the funding of
a promising young writer, Tom Haley - a man who resembles no one
more closely than McEwan himself.
Haley's stories tap into Froome's weakness for a certain kind of
man. One story he tells is of two identical twins: one an atheist,
the other a vicar. The vicar has written a fine sermon that he
wants to give while the bishop is visiting, but he is called away.
The atheist brother gives the address flawlessly ("The bishop
actually pumps his hand"), impressing Froome: "These clever,
amoral, inventive, destructive men, single-minded, selfish,
emotionally cool, coolly attractive. I think I preferred them to
the love of Jesus." Needless to say, Haley is one of these men (the
novel is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens).
These tales-within-tales give the book a giddying rhythm - it is
a novel about writers and readers more than it is about espionage -
and it has much to relish. But McEwan's writing matches the
characters that Froome so admires: clever and inventive, but
emotionally cool. One might say one prefers the love of Christ.
Simon Jones is editor of Third Way magazine.