In 1972 Serena Frome, fresh from Cambridge, spends a summer with her aging donnish lover. At the appropriate moment, he passes her in due course to employment in MI5 where she files reports and types bold memos about which her superiors soon have second thoughts and which they will never send. In one memorable pinch she’s sent to clean a safe house in Her Majesty’s service,.

And then, of course, she is given a shot at responsibility: recruiting a young novelist in a program to steer “culture” in directions that will promote Britain in the Cold War.

Ian McEwan here channels Le Carré, and does it remarkably well. He then turns the story on its head and lets it hare off in the way McEwan stories (Atonement, Amsterdam) will do. As Chesil Beach seemed to be a story about sex and turned out, on second thought, to be a story about art, this is a story that is not chiefly concerned with what its narrator thinks is her obsession, nor yet with the fate the reader fears will ensnare her.