Spies : a novel

by Michael Frayn

Hardcover, 2002




New York : Metropolitan Books, 2002.


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 bombsite. But the two boys start to suspect all is not as it seems when one day Keith announces a disconcerting discovery: the Germans have infiltrated his own family. And when the secret underground world they have dreamed up emerges from the shadows they find themselves engulfed in mysteries far deeper and more painful than they had bargained for. Winner of the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award.

User reviews

LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
In this 2002 Whitbread winner, an elderly man returns to the street in suburban London where he grew up during World War II. As he wanders the street, he relives one of the seminal events of his childhood.

As a boy, he was somewhat of a loner, but became friends with Keith, the boy across the
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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.
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LibraryThing member whitreidtan
Opening with narrator Stephen Wheatley smelling a vaguely unpleasant smell that triggers the memory of a fateful time in his childhood, this story tells of boys Keith and Stephen, their friendship and what their curiousity during WWII cost them and others. As Stephen travels back to the Close he
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lived on during the war years, he remembers Keith as being the driving force behind all that the two boys did together and the catalyst for their fateful game of spying on Keith's mother whom Keith avers is a German spy. The two boys hide out in a thick privet bush, thinking they are unobserved, trying to mark Mrs. Hayward's comings and goings, and eventually tailing her as best they can. Older narrator Stephen interjects occasionally and the reader is comfortably sure that he or she knows more than young Stephen so when the denouement occurs, it is a somewhat unexpected twist (although we do know it a step ahead of Stephen). It is what our narrator casually reveals after the story of the imagination of young boys that somehow shocks the reader even more.

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.
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LibraryThing member Abi78
Excellent. Short but immensely compelling and atmospheric. If you need a good page turner that also requires some thought I recommend this. It stayed in my mind for a long time after I'd finished it.
LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Very well written novel about a young boy's coming of age experience during WWII
LibraryThing member firebird013
Brilliant evocation of childhood. With compassionate insight into the mind and morality of a young lad a tale is unfolded steadily revealing the hidden life on a very normal road during WWII. There is real suspense in this engaging and totally believable story. A good read.
LibraryThing member kevinashley
The story begins with an old man returning to a place from his childhood and beginning to reminisce, and then moves into a narrative of an episode in that childhood, in England during the second world war. A mixture of childish misunderstanding and childhood games turns out to have consequences
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that extend to the lives of both children and adults.

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.
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LibraryThing member murunbuchstansangur
I enjoyed this book. The closely observed childhood world of Stephen Wheatley and his idol Keith was immediate and convincing, and the fairly gentle pace of the sad, inevitable story of the adults was cleverly offset against the urgency of Stephen's fevered imagination and burgeoning adolescent
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feelings. The world seen through a magnifying glass and felt with all the anguished helplessness of a child.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
As the novel opens, the narrator, Stephen, returns in his old age to the neighborhood where he grew up during WWII England. Wandering around the old streets, certain sights, sounds and smells (especially the sweet smell of the flowers on the privet hedge) conjure up Stephen the boy, and what
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happened to him many years ago during his childhood. While the memories are slowly unfurled, Stephen the man often adds in his own questions about what Stephen the boy could and should have understood (or not) about what was happening at the time.

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.
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LibraryThing member NeilDalley
A clever creation of a story from a child's perspective. It is an adventure but the significant element is the unfolding of childhood into adulthood. How does a child slowly come to understand the world of adults? What makes them realise that actually they aren't so different from themselves after
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Keith thinks that his family has been infiltrated by German spies, and he enlists the help of his friend Stephen to find evidence of the treachery. It's the second world war, and the two young boys discover that sometimes a game can have serious consequences.

Frayn's novel explores that time in many
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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.
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LibraryThing member ljbwell
An elderly man goes back to the English village of his childhood and looks back at events during WWII. He recounts and examines his friendship with Keith, another boy in the village and an only child (and he is basically Keith's only friend). Everything changes when one day Keith announces his
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mother is a German spy.

This is a story that plays with perspective. It was interesting how the narrator sometimes referred to his childhood self in the 3rd person - distancing himself, examining this stranger's actions, looking back in puzzlement or dismay at who this person was. Other times he tells the story in the 1st person - bringing the reader in to the immediacy and urgency of the events, the importance that the boys gave them at the time, but also to keep the reader from fully knowing what is really going on (though we clearly know more than the boys). Frayn creates a tense atmosphere and mounting dread about what the truth behind the boys' suspicions is. He takes a fun child's game of spying on and tailing neighbors and makes it ominous, laden with layers & real dangers that the narrator only understands better in his adulthood. At the same time, he brings you in to his frustrations - those moments as a child when you want to do the right thing (or something other than what you actually do) but find yourself doing something else. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member mej2011
Bought at Myopic with J between Xmas and New Year. Read 1/1-1/2. Evocative writing, compelling story.
LibraryThing member LiteraryFeline
A man called Stephen travels down memory lane, remembering his childhood in London during the Great War. He and his friend, Keith, lived out many adventures, their imaginations coming alive. Upon his friend’s words that his friend’s mother was a German spy, the two boys set out to spy on her.
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What Stephen discovers will change the rest of his life. The book has a slow start. Many times I doubted that I would like the book, however, by the end, I was glad I stuck to it. It’s a touching story about the innocence of a child who is put into a situation no child belonged in. His fear and confusion was real throughout the book, and perhaps the most honest account of someone in his shoes. His fear and confusion was real throughout the book, and perhaps the most honest account of someone in his shoes. He was an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances.
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LibraryThing member lberriman
It was an easy read. The second half more compelling than the first.
LibraryThing member gbelik
This coming of age story set in WW2 England, was well written and suspenseful. Well developed and sympathetic characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
LibraryThing member Carolinejyoung
I liked the innocence of the narrator's viewpoint and the subtle way that the unpleasantries of that time were covered but not dwelt upon leaving the reader to fill in the pieces.
LibraryThing member LisaMorr
I definitely expected something different from the title. This is seemingly a story about growing up in England during WWII, a story about two boys, seemingly friends, with big imaginations. One day, one boy tells the other boy that his mom is a German spy. And that starts a series of events that
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have very unpredictable outcomes. Very good book.
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LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
You wouldn't think that a story about two boys at play could turn into such a nail-biter, especially when neither child is ever in any real danger. Yet Michael Frayn's 2002 novel "Spies" reads like a thriller.

Certain odors can take us back to faraway places and long-ago times, and it is a smell
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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.
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LibraryThing member adrianburke
I feel I should have enjoyed this more than I did. I am not sure I really bought the idea that Uncle Peter was hiding in the cellars on the other side of the railway underpass. Sorry.
LibraryThing member Corazie
It may be that I dislike this book because it was forced on me, or it could be that I simply could not even like the protagonist, I'm not sure.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member Shimmin
The second Frayn book I've tried and failed to read. It's likely the first one prejudiced me against this, despite assurances from my family that it's good. I really couldn't get into it. The style seemed unnecessarily wordy and somewhat pretentious, but wasn't satisfying enough in itself to make
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it interesting. There was an early irritating touch in the protagonist finding out the name of a plant and refusing to divulge it to the reader, presumably an attempt to seem either interesting or mysterious, and achieving neither. After a prologue that was seemed as pointless as prologues usually seem, Frayn moved on to depicting the slightly unsatisfactory childhood of the protagonist through his own recollections. Deducing from the first few pages that the protagonist was likely to be miserable, his affluent older friend domineering, that nothing particularly fun seemed likely to happen, that the style grated on me, and - in short - that it read like a literary novel rather than a story of childhood adventure, I decided it wasn't worth my time.
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
I noted that this book is now on A-level English Literature reading list yet I had never heard of it which rather piqued my interest so decided to give it a go.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member jbennett
This is a strangely compelling book written as an older man remembering events when he was a young boy during the war. He and a friend misinterpret adult behaviour, well actually almost fantasize about it. They get sucked into the adult world without understanding what is going on at all. The
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evocation of childhood and the times is excellent and the twist at the end unexpected.
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LibraryThing member SadieBabie
I adored this. The writing was very powerful, it brought the story to life - I felt I could actually see, hear & smell the surroundings. The characters were strong, the story unwound at a great pace & it captured that strange place between childhood & teenage years really well. I figured out what
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the mother was up to fairly early on, but that didn't detract from the story.

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.
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LibraryThing member EricAshley
A moving, intelligent and intriguing story of a wartime childhood in suburban Britain



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