Spies by Michael Frayn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A nostalgia fueled trip down memory lane driven by the wartime reminisces of a childhood spent in its shadows. This is a neat little book which does a great job of slowly building up the tension as the narrator recollects a particularly vivid experience from his childhood which was a turning point in his life.
World War 2 rumbles on, and Stephen and the other kids in the Close, the small street where they stay, feel it in their everyday lives, what with the blackouts and rationing as well as the air of subterfuge hanging in the air. Stephen, a shy and self-conscious boy seemingly ashamed of his family’s condition with respect to the rest of the area, is friends with the subtly dominating Keith whose family is very different from Stephen’s. Their adventures are usually set in motion by Keith’s proclamations, such as the assertion that one of their neighbors is in fact a murderer or the idea to build a trans-Atlantic railway. Usually, these end up forgotten after a point and they move onto the next one. One such proclamation by Keith about the presence of an enemy spy in his family sets in motion the chain of events detailed here. As they plot out their own spying plans, it becomes obvious to adult readers that whether or not German spies are involved, there definitely is something that Keith’s parents and even aunt may be surreptitiously upto. The more important question though is – how far are the boys, and especially Stephen willing to go to find out the truth behind the suspicious happenings? Does Stephen, with his furtive and easily intimidated temperament even want to? Before long he realizes that maybe he won’t have much of a choice, that he is already involved whether Keith continues to be or not.
The atmosphere is beautifully set up from the first page, with an overabundance of description on the sights and smells which take our narrator, the adult and aging Stephen, back down memory lane. As he visits the Close, he notices how much has changed and yet how some things remain the same. The mystery takes its own sweet time to build up before finally setting up a frantic finale. Stephen’s age is never precisely alluded to, but his thought process and ideas give the feel of a pre-teen still enveloped in the last vestiges of innocence who suddenly finds himself thrust in the midst of very adult intrigues. His gradual understanding of these concerns is a big part of the narrative, as the adult Stephen takes us through the mind of a confused child who worries every step of the way about what the right thing to do is and yet is unable to tear himself away from the mystery and subterfuge unfolding in his neighborhood. The final reveal, while maybe hinted at during the story preceding it, is still a fitting and emotional end.
A small book maybe, but resonantly deep in its themes and characters.