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Playing it too cool

23 November 2012

Simon Jones reads of a bishop's daughter


Sweet Tooth
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT517 )

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.

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