Ian McEwan’s latest novel is an exercise in deception — the author of Atonement has created an engaging book that’s as much suspenseful drama as it is romantic love story. At the center is Serena Frome, who after graduating from university as a math major (but with a reputation for being a lover of novels) lands a desk job with the intelligence agency, MI5. Early on Serena receives an assignment: She must pose as a representative for an arts foundation, and begin to cultivate a young writer. But keeping her identity from him proves challenging. In this excerpt, Serena has met her novelist, and has boarded the train home. She has not gotten a promise from him that he will work with her, and worse — she has found herself attracted to him. While she rides, she reads one of the stories that he has published. Sweet Tooth with be published Nov. 13.
I was the only passenger in my carriage on the early afternoon train back to London. As we left the South Downs behind and sped across the Sussex Weald, I tried to work off my agitation by walking up and down the aisle. I sat for a couple of minutes, then I was back on my feet. I blamed myself for a lack of persistence. I should have waited out the hour until his teaching was over, forced him to have lunch with me, gone through it all again, got his consent. But that wasn’t it really. I’d come away without his home address. Nor that. Something may or may not have started between us, but it was just a touch—almost nothing at all. I should have stayed and built on it, left with a little more, a bridge to our next meeting. One deep kiss on that mouth that wanted to do my talking for me. I was bothered by the memory of the skin between the shirt buttons, the pale hair in a whorl around the edges of the navel, and the light and slender childlike body. I took up one of his stories to reread but my attention soon slipped. I thought of get- ting off at Haywards Heath and going back. Would I have been so troubled if he hadn’t caressed my fingers? I thought I would. Might the touch of his thumb have been entirely accidental? Impossible. He meant it, he was telling me. Stay.But when the train stopped, I didn’t move, I didn’t trust myself. Look what happened, I thought, when I threw myself at Max.
Sebastian Morel is a teacher of French at a large comprehensive school near Tufnell Park, north London. He is married to Monica and they have two children, a girl and a boy aged seven and four, and they live in a rented terraced house near Finsbury Park. Sebastian’s work is tough, pointless and ill-paid, the pupils are insolent and unruly. Sometimes he spends his entire day trying to keep order in class and handing out punishments he doesn’t believe in. He marvels at how irrelevant knowledge of rudimentary French is to the lives of these kids. He wanted to like them, but he was repelled by their ignorance and aggression and the way they jeered at and bullied any of their number who dared to show an interest in learning. In this way they kept themselves down. Nearly all of them will leave school as soon as they can and get unskilled jobs or get pregnant or make do with unemployment benefit. He wants to help them. Sometimes he pities them, sometimes he struggles to suppress his contempt.
He is in his early thirties, a wiry man of exceptional strength. At university in Manchester, Sebastian was a keen mountaineer and led expeditions in Norway, Chile and Austria. But these days he no longer gets out onto the heights because his life is too constrained, there is never enough money or time and his spirits are low. His climbing gear was stowed in canvas bags in a cupboard under the stairs, well behind the Hoover and mops and buckets. Money is always a problem. Monica trained as a primary school teacher. Now she stays at home to look after the children and the house. She does it well, she is a loving mother, the children are adorable, but she suffers from bouts of restlessness and frustration that mirror Sebastian’s. Their rent is outrageous for such a small house in a dingy street and their marriage of nine years is dull, flattened by worries and hard work, marred by the occasional row—usually about money.
One dark late afternoon in December, three days before the end of term, he is mugged in the street. Monica has asked him to go to the bank at lunchtime to draw out seventy pounds from the joint account so that she can buy presents and Christmas treats. It is almost all they have by way of savings. He has turned into his own road, which is narrow and poorly lit, and is a hundred yards from his front door when he hears steps behind him and feels a tap on his shoulder. He turns and standing before him was a kid of sixteen or so, West Indian, holding a kitchen knife, a big one with a serrated blade. For a few seconds the two stood close, less than three feet apart, staring at each other in silence. What troubles Sebastian is the boy’s agitation, the way the knife trembles in his hands, the terror in his face. Things could easily get out of control. In a quiet shaky voice the boy asks for his wallet. Sebastian raises his hand slowly to the inside pocket of his coat. He is about to give away his children’s Christmas. He knows he is stronger than the kid and he calculates that as he holds out his wallet he could strike out, hit him hard on the nose and snatch the knife off him.
But it is more than the kid’s agitation that restrains Sebastian. There was a general view, strongly held in the staff room, that crime, especially burglary and mugging, was caused by social injustice. Robbers are poor, they’ve never had the right chances in life and can hardly be blamed for taking what isn’t theirs. This is Sebastian’s view too, though he’s never given the matter much thought. In fact, it isn’t even a view, it’s a general atmosphere of tolerance that surrounds decent educated people. Those who complain about crime are likely to complain also about graffiti and litter in the streets and hold a whole set of distasteful views on immigration and the unions, tax, war and hanging. It was important therefore, for the sake of one’s self-respect, not to mind too much about being mugged.
So he hands over his wallet and the thief runs away. Instead of going straight home Sebastian walks back toward the High Street and goes to the police station to report the incident. As he speaks to the desk sergeant, he feels a bit of a cad or a snitch, for the police are clearly agents of the system that forces people to steal. His discomfort increases in the face of the sergeant’s grave concern, and the way he keeps asking about the knife, the length of the blade, and whether Sebastian was able to see anything of the handle. Of course, armed robbery is a very serious offense. That kid could go to jail for years. Even when the sergeant tells him that there was a fatal stabbing only the month before of an old lady who tried to hang on to her purse, Sebastian’s unease is not dispelled. He shouldn’t have mentioned the knife. As he walks back along the street, he regrets his automatic impulse to report the matter. He’s becoming middle-aged and bourgeois. He should have taken responsibility for himself. He is no longer the sort of guy who puts his life on the line and climbs up sheer faces of granite, trusting his agility, strength and skill.
Because he is beginning to feel weakness and trembling in his legs he goes into a pub and with the loose change in his pocket is just about able to afford a large scotch. He downs it in one, and then he goes home.
The mugging marks a decline in his marriage. Though Monica never says so, it is clear she doesn’t believe him. It’s the old story. He’s come home stinking of drink, protesting that someone has run off with the holiday money. The Christmas is wretched. They have to borrow from her haughty brother. Her distrust kindles his resentment, they are distant with each other, they have to pretend to be jolly on Christmas Day for the sake of their children, and that seems to heighten the bleakness that comes down to trap them into silence. The idea that she thought he was a liar was like a poison in his heart. He works hard, he is loyal and faithful and keeps no secrets from her. How dare she doubt him! One evening when Naomi and Jake are in bed, he challenges her to tell him that she believes him about the mugging. She is immediately angry, and won’t say whether she does or not. Instead, she changes the subject, a trick in argument, he thinks bitterly, she is supremely good at and one he should learn himself. She is sick of her life, she tells him, sick of being financially dependent on him, of being stuck at home all day while he is out advancing his career. Why have they never considered the possibility of him doing the housework and looking after the children while she resumes her career?
Even as she says all this he is thinking what an attractive prospect it is. He could turn his back on those awful kids, who never keep quiet or stay in their seats in his classes. He could stop pretending to care whether they ever spoke a word of French. And he likes being with his children. He would get them to their school and playgroup, then take a couple of hours for himself, perhaps fulfill an old ambition and get some writing done before picking up Jake and giving him lunch. Then an afternoon of childcare and light housework. Bliss. Let her be the wage slave. But they are having a row and he is in no mood to make conciliatory offers. He brings Monica back sharply to the mugging. He challenges her again to call him a liar, he tells her to go to the police station and read his statement. In reply, she leaves the room, slamming the door hard behind her.
A sour peace prevails, the holidays end and he goes back to work. It’s as bad as ever at school. The kids are absorbing from the culture at large a cocky spirit of rebellion. Hash, spirits and tobacco were playground currencies, and teachers, including the headmaster, are confused, half believing that this atmosphere of insurrection is a token of the very freedom and creativity they are supposed to be imparting, and half aware that nothing is being taught or learned and the school is going to the dogs. The “sixties,” whatever they were, have entered this decade wearing a sinister new mask. The same drugs that were said to have brought peace and light to middle-class students were now shrinking the prospects of the hard-edged urban poor. Fifteen-year-olds come to Sebastian’s classes stoned or drunk or both. Kids younger than them have taken LSD in the playground and have to be sent home. Ex-pupils sell drugs at the school gates, standing there openly with their wares alongside the mums and their pushchairs. The headmaster dithers, everyone dithers.
At the end of the day Sebastian is often hoarse from raising his voice in class. Walking home slowly is his one comfort, when he can be alone with his thoughts as he makes his way from one bleak setting to another. It’s a relief that Monica is out at evening classes four times a week—yoga, German lessons, angelology. Otherwise, they step around each other at home, speaking only to manage the household. He sleeps in the spare room, explaining to the children that his snoring keeps Mummy awake. He is ready to give up his job so that she can go back to hers. But he can’t forget that she thinks he’s the sort of man who can drink away the children’s Christmas. And then lie about it. Clearly, there is a far deeper problem. Their trust in each other has vanished and their marriage is in crisis. Swapping roles with her would be merely cosmetic. The thought of divorce fills him with horror. What wrangling and stupidity would follow! How could they inflict such pain and sadness on Naomi and Jake? It is his and Monica’s responsibility to sort this matter out. But he does not know how to begin. Whenever he thinks of that boy and the kitchen knife in his hand, the old anger returns. Monica’s refusal to believe him, to believe in him, has broken a vital bond and seems to him a monstrous betrayal.
And then there is the money: there is never enough money. In January their twelve-year-old car needs a new clutch. This in turn delays the repayment to Monica’s brother—the debt is not settled until early March. It is a week later, while Sebastian is in the staff room at lunchtime, that he is approached by the school secretary. His wife is on the phone and needs to speak to him urgently. He hurried to the office nauseous with dread. She had never phoned him at work before, and it could only be very bad news, perhaps something to do with Naomi or Jake. So it’s with some relief that he hears her tell him that there has been a break-in that morning at the house. After drop- ping off the children, she went to her doctor’s appointment, then to the shops. When she got home the front door was ajar. The burglar had got in round the back garden, broken a window at the rear of the house, lifted a catch and climbed in, gathered up the stuff and gone out by the front. What stuff? She listed it all tonelessly. His precious 1930s Rolleiflex, bought years ago with the proceeds of a French prize he won at Manchester. Then, their transistor radio and his Leica binoculars, and her hair dryer. She pauses, and then she tells him, in that same flat voice, that all his climbing gear has been taken too.
At that point he feels the need to sit down. The secretary, who has been hovering, tactfully leaves the office and closes the door. So much good stuff carefully accumulated over the years, and so much of sentimental value, including a rope he once used to save a friend’s life during a descent in a storm in the Andes. Even if the insurance covers it all, which Sebastian doubts, he knows he will never replace his mountaineering equipment. There was too much of it, there are too many other priorities. His youth has been stolen. With his upright, good-hearted tolerance deserting him, he imagined his hands closing around the thief’s windpipe. Then he shakes his head to dismiss the fantasy. Monica is telling him that the police have already been round. There is blood on the broken windowpane. But it looks like the thief wore gloves, as there are no fingerprints. He tells her that there must have been two burglars at least, to lift all his gear out of the cupboard and carry it quickly from the house. Yes, she agreed in her affectless voice that there must have been two.
At home that evening he can’t resist punishing himself by opening the cupboard under the stairs and gazing at the space where his equipment was. He restored the buckets and mops and brushes to their upright position, then he went upstairs to look in his sock drawer, where he had kept his camera. The thieves knew what to take, though the hair dryer matters less since there are two. This latest setback, this assault on their domestic privacy, does nothing to bring Sebastian and Monica closer. After a brief discussion they agree not to tell the children about the break-in and she goes off to her class. In the days that follow he feels so low he can barely bring himself to make the insurance claim. The full-color handbook boasts of “solid protection” but the small print in the schedule is miserly and punitive. Only a fraction of the camera’s value is covered, and the climbing gear not at all because he failed to itemize it.
Their dreary coexistence resumed. A month after the burglary, the same school secretary seeks out Sebastian at break to tell him that there’s a gentleman to see him in the school office. In fact he is waiting for Sebastian in the corridor, holding a raincoat over his arm. He introduces himself as Detective Inspector Barnes and he has a matter to discuss. Would Mr. Morel care to drop by the police station after work?
A few hours later he is back at the front desk where he reported the mugging before Christmas. He is obliged to wait for half an hour before Barnes is free. The DI apologizes as he shows him up three flights of concrete stairs and ushers him into a small darkened room. There was a fold-down screen on a wall and a film projector in the center of the room balanced on what looked like a barstool. Barnes showed Sebastian a seat and began his account of a successful sting. A year ago the police rented a run-down shop in a side street and staffed it with a couple of plainclothes officers. The shop bought secondhand goods from the public, the idea being to film thieves as they came in with stolen goods. With a number of prosecutions now under way, the cover has been blown and the shop has closed. But there are one or two loose ends. He dims the lights.
A hidden camera is positioned behind the “shop assistant” and gives a view of the door onto the street and, in the foreground, the counter. Sebastian has already guessed that he is about to see the young guy who mugged him come into the shop. With a successful identification, he’ll be done for armed robbery, and that will be fine. But Sebastian’s guess is wildly wrong. The person who comes in with a holdall and sets down on the counter a radio, a camera and a hair dryer is his wife. There she is, in the coat he bought her some birthdays ago. By chance she turns and looks toward the camera, as if she has seen Sebastian and is saying, Watch this! Soundlessly, she exchanges a few words with the assistant and together they go outside and come back moments later dragging three heavy canvas bags. The car must be parked right outside. The shop assistant peers inside each of the bags, then goes back behind the counter, glances over the items. There follows what must be a negotiation over prices. Monica’s face was lit by a bar of fluorescent light. She seemed animated, even elated in a nervous sort of way. She smiled a lot and at one point even laughed at a joke the plainclothes policeman made. A price is agreed, banknotes are counted out, and Monica turns to leave. At the door she stopped to make a parting remark, something more elaborate than a good-bye, and then she was gone and the screen went black.
The DI switches off the projector and turns up the lights. His manner is apologetic. They could have prosecuted, he says. Wasting police time, perverting the course of justice, that sort of thing. But clearly this is a delicate domestic matter and Sebastian will have to decide for himself what to do. The two men go down the stairs and out into the street. As he shakes Sebastian’s hand the DI says he is terribly sorry, he can see that this is a difficult situation and he wishes him all the best with it. Then, before he goes back into the station, he adds that it was the view of the police team working in the shop, who had recordings of what was said at the counter, that “Mrs. Morel probably needed help.”
On the way home—has he ever walked more slowly?—he would have stopped in that same pub for another fortifying drink, but he does not have on him even the price of a half pint. Perhaps it’s just as well. He needs a clear head and clean breath. It takes him an hour to walk the mile to his house.
She is cooking with the children when he comes in. He lingers in the doorway of the kitchen watching his little family at work on a cake. It was terribly sad, the way Jake and Naomi’s precious heads bobbed so eagerly at their mother’s murmured instructions. He goes upstairs and lies on the bed in the spare room, staring at the ceiling. He feels heavy and tired and wonders if he is suffering from shock. And yet, despite the awful truth he has learned that day, he is troubled now by something new and equally shocking. Shocking? Is that the right word?
When he was downstairs just now watching Monica and the children, there was a moment when she glanced back over her shoulder at him. Their eyes met. He knows her well enough, he has seen that look many times before and has always welcomed it. It promises much. It is a tacit suggestion that when the moment is right, when the children are asleep, they should seize their chance and obliterate all thoughts of domestic duties. In the new circumstances, with what he knows now, he should be repelled. But he is excited by that glance because it came from a stranger, from a woman he knows nothing about beyond her obvious taste for destruction. He had seen her in a silent movie and realized that he had never understood her. He had got her all wrong. She was no longer his familiar. In the kitchen he had seen her with fresh eyes and realized, as though for the first time, how beautiful she was. Beautiful and mad. Here was someone he had just met, at a party say, noticed her across a crowded room, the sort of woman who, with a single unambiguous look, offers a dangerous and thrilling invitation.
He has been doggedly faithful throughout his marriage. His fidelity now seems like one more aspect of the general constriction and failure in his life. His marriage is over, there can be no going back, for how can he live with her now? How can he trust a woman who has stolen from him and lied? It’s over. But here is the chance of an affair. An affair with madness. If she needs help, then this is what he can offer.
That evening he plays with the children, cleans the hamster’s cage with them, gets them into their pajamas, and reads to them three times over, once together, then to Jake on his own, then to Naomi. It is at times like these that his life makes sense. How soothing it is, the scent of clean bed linen and minty toothpaste breath, and his children’s eagerness to hear the adventures of imaginary beings, and how touching, to watch the children’s eyes grow heavy as they struggle to hang on to the priceless last minutes of their day, and finally fail. All the while he is aware of Monica moving about downstairs, he hears the distinctive clunk of the oven door a few times and is aroused by the simple distracting logic: if there is to be food, if they are eating together, then there will be sex.
When he goes down, their tiny sitting room has been tidied, the usual junk has been cleared from the dining table and there is candlelight, Art Blakey on the hi-fi, a bottle of wine on the table and a roast chicken in an earthenware dish. When he remembered the police film—his thoughts kept returning to it—he hated her. And when she came in from the kitchen in fresh skirt and blouse, bearing two wineglasses, he wanted her. What is missing now is the love, or the guilty memory of love, or the need for it, and that is a liberation. She has become another woman, devious, deceitful, unkind, even cruel, and he is about to make love to her.
During the meal they avoid talk of the ill-feeling that has stifled their marriage for months. They don’t even talk about the children as they so often do. Instead they talk about successful family holidays in the past, and holidays they will take with the children when Jake is a little older. It is all false, none of it will ever happen. Then they talked politics, of strikes and the state of emergency and the sense of impending ruin in Parliament, in cities, in the country’s sense of itself—they talked of all the ruin but their own. He watches her closely as she talks, and knows that every word is a lie. Doesn’t she think it extraordinary, as he does, that after all this silence they are behaving as though nothing has happened? She is counting on sex to put everything right. He wants her all the more. And more again when she asks in passing about the insurance claim and expresses concern. Amazing. What an actress. It was as if she was alone and he was watching her through a peephole. He has no intention of confronting her. If he did, they would surely row, because she would deny everything. Or she would tell him that her financial dependence forced her to desperate measures. And he would have to point out that all their accounts are jointly held and that he has as little money as she does. But this way they will make love and he at least will know that it is for the very last time. He would make love to a liar and a thief, to a woman he would never know. And she in turn would convince herself that she was making love to a liar and a thief. And doing so in the spirit of forgiveness.
In my opinion Tom Haley spent too long over this farewell chicken dinner, and it seemed especially drawn out on a second reading. It wasn’t necessary to mention the vegetables, or to tell us that the wine was a Burgundy. My train was approaching Clapham Junction as I turned the pages to locate the finale. I was tempted to skip it altogether. I made no claims to sophistication—I was a simple sort of reader, temperamentally bound to consider Sebastian as Tom’s double, the bearer of his sexual prowess, the receptacle of his sexual anxieties. I became uneasy whenever one of his male characters became intimate with a woman, with another woman. But I was curious too, I had to watch. If Monica was daffy as well as deceitful (what was this angelology business?) then there was something obtuse and dark in Sebastian. His decision not to confront his wife about her deception may have been a cruel exercise of power for sexual ends, or a simple matter of cowardice, of an essentially English preference to avoid a scene. It didn’t reflect well on Tom.
Over the years, uxorious repetition has streamlined the process and they are swiftly naked and embracing on the bed. They have been married long enough to be thorough experts on each other’s needs, and the ending of long weeks of froideur and abstinence surely contributes a certain bonus, but it can’t explain away the passion that overwhelms them now. Their customary, companionable rhythms were violently discarded. They are hungry, ferocious, extravagant and loud. At one point little Naomi in the next room let out a cry in her sleep, a pure silvery rising wail in the dark that they mistook at first for a cat. The couple freeze and wait for her to settle.
And then came the final lines of “Pawnography,” with the characters perched uneasily on ecstasy’s summit. The desolation was to follow, off the page. The reader was spared the worst.
The sound was so icy and bleak that he imagined his daughter had seen in her dreams the unavoidable future, all the sorrow and confusion to come, and he felt himself shrink in horror. But the moment passed, and soon Sebastian and Monica sank again, or they rose, for there seemed to be no physical dimensions in the space they swam or tumbled through, only sensation, only pleasure so focused, so pointed it was a reminder of pain.
Reprinted with permission from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.Copyright 2012 Ian McEwan.