Authors: Ian McEwan
Tags: #Romance, #Espionage
By the same author
FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES
IN BETWEEN THE SHEETS
THE CEMENT GARDEN
THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS
THE CHILD IN TIME
ON CHESIL BEACH
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF CANADA
Copyright © 2012 Ian McEwan
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, and simultaneously in the United Kingdom by Jonathan Cape, a division of The Random House Group Limited, London. Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited.
Knopf Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Lines from ‘September 1, 1939’ copyright © 1940 by W. H. Auden, renewed. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd. Lines from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ copyright © 1964 by Philip Larkin. Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Sweet tooth / Ian McEwan.
PR6063.C4S94 2012 823′.914 C2012-902037-0
Cover design by CS Richardson
Image credits: © Chris Frazer Smith
To Christopher Hitchens
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.
Timothy Garton Ash,
y name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.
I won’t waste much time on my childhood and teenage years. I’m the daughter of an Anglican bishop and grew up with a sister in the cathedral precinct of a charming small city in the east of England. My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them. My sister Lucy and I were a year and a half apart and though we fought shrilly during our adolescence, there was no lasting harm and we became closer in adult life. 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 overlooked an enclosed garden with ancient herbaceous borders that were well known, and still are, to those who know about plants. So, all stable, enviable, idyllic even. We grew up inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies.
The late sixties lightened but did not disrupt our existence. I never missed a day at my local grammar school unless I was ill. In my late teens there slipped over the garden wall some heavy petting, as they used to call it, experiments with tobacco, alcohol and a little hashish, rock and roll records, brighter colours and warmer relations all round. At seventeen my friends and I were timidly and delightedly rebellious, but we did our school work, we memorised and disgorged the irregular verbs, the equations, the motives of fictional characters. We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good. It pleased us, the general excitement in the air in 1969. It was inseparable from the expectation that soon it would be time to leave home for another education elsewhere. Nothing strange or terrible happened to me during my first eighteen years and that is why I’ll skip them.
Left to myself I would have chosen to do a lazy English degree at a provincial university far to the north or west of my home. I enjoyed reading novels. I went fast – I could get through two or three a week – and doing that for three years would have suited me just fine. But at the time I was considered something of a freak of nature – a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics. I wasn’t interested in the subject, I took little pleasure in it, but I enjoyed being top, and getting there without much work. I knew the answers to questions before I even knew how I had got to them. While my friends struggled and calculated, I reached a solution by a set of floating steps that were partly visual, partly just a feeling for what was right. It was hard to explain how I knew what I knew. Obviously, an exam in maths was far less effort than one in English literature. And in my final year I was captain of the school chess team. You must exercise some historical imagination to understand what it meant for a girl in those times to travel to a neighbouring school and knock from his perch some condescending smirking squit of a boy. However, maths and chess, along with hockey, pleated skirts
and hymn-singing, I considered mere school stuff. I reckoned it was time to put away these childish things when I began to think about applying to university. But I reckoned without my mother.
She was the quintessence, or parody, of a vicar’s then a bishop’s wife – a formidable memory for parishoners’ names and faces and gripes, a way of sailing down a street in her Hermès scarf, a kindly but unbending manner with the daily and the gardener. Faultless charm on any social scale, in any key. How knowingly she could level with the tight-faced, chain-smoking women from the housing estates when they came for the Mothers’ and Babies’ Club in the crypt. How compellingly she read the Christmas Eve story to the Barnardo’s children gathered at her feet in our drawing room. With what natural authority she put the Archbishop of Canterbury at his ease when he came through once for tea and Jaffa cakes after blessing the restored cathedral font. Lucy and I were banished upstairs for the duration of his visit. All this – and here is the difficult part – combined with utter devotion and subordination to my father’s cause. She promoted him, served him, eased his way at every turn. From boxed socks and ironed surplice hanging in the wardrobe, to his dustless study, to the profoundest Saturday silence in the house when he wrote his sermon. All she demanded in return – my guess, of course – was that he love her or, at least, never leave her.
But what I hadn’t understood about my mother was that buried deep beneath this conventional exterior was the hardy little seed of a feminist. I’m sure that word never passed her lips, but it made no difference. Her certainty frightened me. She said it was my duty as a woman to go to Cambridge to study maths. As a woman? In those days, in our milieu, no one ever spoke like that. No woman did anything ‘as a woman’. She told me she would not permit me to waste my talent. I was to excel and become extraordinary. I must have a proper career in science or engineering or economics. She
allowed herself the world-oyster cliché. It was unfair on my sister that I was both clever and beautiful when she was neither. It would compound the injustice if I failed to aim high. I didn’t follow the logic of this, but I said nothing. My mother told me she would never forgive me and she would never forgive herself if I went off to read English and became no more than a slightly better educated housewife than she was. I was in danger of
wasting my life
. Those were her words, and they represented an admission. This was the only time she expressed or implied dissatisfaction with her lot.
Then she enlisted my father – ‘the Bishop’ was what my sister and I called him. When I came in from school one afternoon my mother told me he was waiting for me in his study. In my green blazer with its heraldic crest and emblazoned motto –
Nisi Dominus Vanum
(Without the Lord All is in Vain) – I sulkily lolled in his clubbish leather armchair while he presided at his desk, shuffling papers, humming to himself as he ordered his thoughts. I thought he was about to rehearse for me the parable of the talents, but he took a surprising and practical line. He had made some enquiries. Cambridge was anxious to be seen to be ‘opening its gates to the modern egalitarian world’. With my burden of triple misfortune – a grammar school, a girl, an all-male subject – I was certain to get in. If, however, I applied to do English there (never my intention; the Bishop was always poor on detail) I would have a far harder time. Within a week my mother had spoken to my headmaster. Certain subject teachers were deployed and used all my parents’ arguments as well as some of their own, and of course I had to give way.
So I abandoned my ambition to read English at Durham or Aberystwyth, where I am sure I would have been happy, and went instead to Newnham College, Cambridge, to learn at my first tutorial, which took place at Trinity, what a mediocrity I was in mathematics. My Michaelmas term depressed me and I almost left. Gawky boys, unblessed by charm or other human attributes like empathy and generative grammar,
cleverer cousins of the fools I had smashed at chess, leered as I struggled with concepts they took for granted. ‘Ah, the serene Miss Frome,’ one tutor would exclaim sarcastically as I entered his room each Tuesday morning. ‘
. Blue-eyed one! Come and enlighten us!’ It was obvious to my tutors and fellow students that I could not succeed precisely because I was a good-looking girl in a mini-skirt, with blonde hair curling past her shoulder blades. The truth was that I couldn’t succeed because I was like nearly all the rest of humanity – not much good at maths, not at this level. I did my best to transfer out to English or French or even anthropology, but no one wanted me. In those days the rules were tightly observed. To shorten a long, unhappy story, I stuck it out and by the end managed a third.
If I’ve rushed through my childhood and teenage years, then I’ll certainly condense my time as an undergraduate. I never went in a punt, with or without a wind-up gramophone, or visited the Footlights – theatre embarrasses me – or got myself arrested at the Garden House riots. But I lost my virginity in my first term, several times over it seemed, the general style being so wordless and clumsy, and had a pleasant succession of boyfriends, six or seven or eight over the nine terms, depending on your definitions of carnality. I made a handful of good friends from among the Newnham women. I played tennis and I read books. All thanks to my mother, I was studying the wrong subject, but I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on
. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.
I’ve said I was fast.
The Way We Live Now
in four afternoons
lying on my bed! I could take in a block of text or a whole paragraph in one visual gulp. It was a matter of letting my eyes and thoughts go soft, like wax, to take the impression fresh off the page. To the irritation of those around me, I’d turn a page every few seconds with an impatient snap of the wrist. My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between – I gave them all the same rough treatment.