Ian McEwan's latest novel is an exercise in deception - 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. 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.
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 touchalmost 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 rowusually about money.
Excerpted from Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. Copyright © 2012 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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