Wednesday, March 24, 2010

*Spies, by Michael Frayn

In 2002, this novel won the Whitbread award for novel of the year. Its competition that year:

White Lightning, by Justin Cartwright
Rumours of a Hurricane, by Tim Lott
The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor (a fine novel which I highly recommend)

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 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 sensory observations, 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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