In the quiet cul-de-sac where Keith and Stephen live the only immediate signs of the Second World War are the blackout at night and a single random bomb-site. But the two boys suspect that the ordinary houses in the Close and their inhabitants are not what they seem.
Frayn builds tension slowly and inexorably throughout the narrative, skillfully adding a slight menace to every action observed or taken. As the reader, you are addressed in the second person, as if older Stephen is narrating his story directly to you and this technique serves to make you a confidante, an insider in the novel itself. Stephen is definitely a more sympathetic character than Keith, not surprising given that Stephen is our narrator. But Frayn also reveals enough about Keith for the reader to understand and feel somewhat sorry for the stoic, rather condescending and unpleasant boy he is. A remarkably surprising book, this is one that will probably stay with me for quite a while thanks both to an unusual plot and to the masterful writing although I'm still not sure I particularly liked it.
As a boy, he was somewhat of a loner, but became friends with Keith, the boy across the street, who had similar problems fitting in. One day Keith says six words that will irrevocably change his life: 'My mother is a German spy.' The boys begin to monitor Keith's mother's movements, and indeed they find a lot of strange and inexplicable things going on. Their childish game, however, quickly develops into something much more sinister.
The author brilliantly evokes the sensibility and reasoning of an imaginative ten year old boy. In reading the book, we are truly returned to a world of childhood where the world of adults is puzzling and illogical.
Spies is similar to Atonement in that both explore the consequences of a child's misinterpretation of adult actions. The narrator in both books is the child looking back at these actions from the distance and wisdom of old age, trying to reconcile his/her childhood self with the person they have become. It's been a while since I read Atonement, but I think I liked Spies more than Atonement. It succeeds, where Atonement did not, in making a child's world very real to me.
This book was both humorous and tragic and I highly recommend it.
The story moves deftly between the voice of the child, and its misunderstanding of what is taking place around it, the voice of an impersonal reliable narrator, and that of the adult reflecting on the child's story: not always remembering things correctly, and not always sure quite what his childhood self knew or understood at the time. This is reflected somewhat in what the reader knows and understands. Although we know more than the child does about what they are seeing, we still have to make guesses about much of it until all is finally explained in the novel's final pages.
There are aspects of this book which are excellent: the portrayal of children's interaction with adults and with the space around them, and their ability to fail to see things which they don't explicitly decide to observe. But I found some aspects of the story didn't feel true to life. The awkward conversations between adult and child in which not much information passes between them do happen, but things are rarely left like that. In that respect, it wasn't a very satisfactory read. Interesting as it is, and as masterful as some of the writing is, I was mildly surprised by the end to realise that I was reading a winner of the Whitbread award.
What Stephen the man looks back on is a certain episode of his youth, when his friend Keith Hayward made the announcement that his mother was a German spy. He based his claim on observations he made about his mother's movements around the neighborhood. His bright idea was to set up surveillance so that he and Stephen could come up with proof of this allegation, and Stephen, who wanted so desperately to fit into Keith's world, went along with the plan. Yet, so many times what children see and think is actually a misinterpretation of what's really going on in the often-incomprehensible world of adults, and Keith and Stephen start down a path which leads to some tragic consequences.
This book has been criticized by some readers for being too slow, but don't believe it. The author spends a lot of time placing the reader into Stephen the boy's neighborhood, complete with smells and other memory triggers, and this basis of place and time is very important. What really makes this book, though, are the characters. There's Stephen, of course, who is of "inferior" class to his friend Keith. Stephen understands that to remain Keith's friend, there are certain unwritten and unspoken rules that he has to follow. Keith is an odd boy, a bullying type who lives with his unemotional, stiff upper-lip, everything-in-its-place kind of father and a mother who is outwardly very charming but whose inner life is a question mark. Spies is not a passive read, meaning that a great deal of reader involvement is necessary, but when you've finished it, you'll want to read it again.
Frayn's novel explores that time in many literary characters' lives when they go from childhood to the first beginnings of adulthood; I say literary characters, because I don't know that many people who go through such a definable switch.
'Spies' is also concerned with sights and smells in much the same way that 'The Virgin Suicides' is; and I found both books to be heavier than they needed to be, and also longer. I think 'Spies' would have worked better if it had been about fifty pages shorter, more like 'Cider with Rosie', for instance.
Having said all that, I wasn't too keen on the ending...it seemed a little rushed. But its definitely a keeper for the bookshelf.
Certain odors can take us back to faraway places and long-ago times, and it is a smell that causes an old man, Stephen Wheatley, to remember a particular summer during World War II when he was growing up in a new neighborhood in London.
Stephen is a quiet boy, preyed on by bullies, whose only friend is Keith, also a loner. In their relationship, Keith is always the leader, Stephen always the follower. Keith invents the fanciful games they play. One day Keith announces, "My mother is a German spy." And so the boys, doing their patriotic duty, closely observe Keith's mother to try to learn her secrets.
It turns out that his mother, if perhaps not a spy, nevertheless does have secrets, and what the boys discover shakes up their lives and the lives of others in the neighborhood.
Frayn is marvelous writer, and "Spies" really is hard to put down.
I usually love war fiction, no matter where it's set, but this just didn't do it for me.
It was like reading a babbling eight year-old's story that he'd just made up, and I get a headache just thinking about it. It didn't flow right for me.
I now can't walk past a privet hedge without thinking of this bloody book.
Stephen Wheatley is an old man living in a foreign country when a smell rekindles some long buried memories so he decides to revisit his old childhood home back in the UK. During WWII Stephen and his best friend Keith decide to spy on Keith's mother whom they believe is a German spy. It is pretty obvious that she is not an enemy agent but does have secrets which she does not want revealed and it is also obvious,despite another a neighbouring child who is spying on Stephen and Keith that it is not a case of simple marital infidelity.
In many respects this is a simple tale of childhood reminiscences but it is also a coming of age story that peoples private and public personas are not always the same. The author uses smells and senses as triggers as these are more reliable than emotions alone.
The boys' ages are not even hinted at until very near the end and the first and third person are often used in the same sentence so that the memories belong to the young Stephen rather than the old one which is well conceived. However on the whole the book failed to really grab me and I found it rather ponderous at times. A good read but nothing special for me.