BBC Radio 4, 3-14 September 2012
Ian McEwan's recently published novel tells of Serena Frome, the daughter of a bishop, who starts life as a mathematician but finds when she goes up to Cambridge University that her knowledge pales into insignifcance compared to that of her fellow-learners. She has an affair with Tony, a professor at the university, who grooms her for the secret service and eventually dumps her.
Serena moves from Cambridge into a lowly job at MI5, where she is initiated into the cloak-and-dagger tactics characteristic of the organization, and meets some of her colleagues whose behaviour seems difficult to fathom. She also discovers that Tony has died of cancer; he had dumped her as part of a strategy designed to enable him to leave Great Britain and go off to die in a Baltic island.
The novel is set in 1972-73, a time of considerable industrial and social strife - the miners' strike, power cuts, terrorism in Northern Ireland dominated the domestic agenda, while the world was still in thrall to the Cold War, with MI5 firmly believing that the Soviet Union were bent on world domination. Exactly what happens to Serena in this turbulent world takes up the main part of McEwan's novel.
On the basis of the early episodes of this Book at Bedtime, McEwan has conjured up a world of secrecy, where nothing is quite what it seems. This is not like a Le Carre novel, where everyone participates in the "Great Game" of espionage; McEwan seems more interested in examining the relationship between 'truth' and 'dissembling' in terms of human behaviour. Did Tony ever tell the truth, or was his whole life a fiction? Can Serena learn to trust anyone close to her? And, more significantly, can we rely upon what Serena, as the first-person narrator, is telling us?
This is an interesting question: Amelia Bullmore reads the novel in a calm, controlled voice, almost as if she were trying to convince listeners to accept Serena' point of view. It is only when we remember Serena's profession that we have to treat what she says with caution. The producer - as well as the abridger - of this intriguing novel was Christine Hall.