by Michael Frayn (2002)
Picador (2003)
272 pp

A few months ago I finally ventured into the novels of Michael Frayn with Headlong, his wonderful novel about a lost Brugel painting. I loved that novel so much that I knew it wouldn’t take me nearly as long to read another. I didn’t know quite where to go, though. Headlong so perfectly suited my mood and my taste, but what could follow it? Thanks to some comments, I decided to turn to Spies.

I’m much more into lost art than I am into spies, in general, so I went into this one with faith in the comments and faith in Frayn. Thankfully, much like Headlong and Frayn’s plays, while there is an exciting story at work that many lesser writers would settle for, Frayn goes below the narrative and into the motives of the narrative itself, into what the narrative means, into what it is to be a human being going through these experiences.

Spiesbegins when an elderly man named Stephen Wheatley gets a whiff of some aroma that always reminds him of some almost-lost memory of his youth.

The third week of June, and there it is again: the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time. I catch it on the warm evening air as I walk past the well-ordered gardens in my quiet street, and for a moment I’m a child again and everything’s before me — all the frightening, half-understood promise of life.

This year, when the smell comes, Stephen attempts to figure out what exactly it is. When the knowledge comes to him so does another wave of memory that intrigues him and shames him. It takes him back to the years of World War II when he was a young boy, around eleven, and he played with his best friend Keith Hayward, the leader of their two-man gang. In an effort to finally understand the questions he didn’t even consider when he was a child, Stephen goes back to his childhood neighborhood to search for stronger memories.

I look up at the sky, the one feature of every landscape and townscape that endures from generaiton to generation and century to century. Even the sky has changed. Once the war was written across it in a tangled scribble of heroic vapor trails. There were the upraised fingers of the searchlights at night and the immense colored palaces of falling flares. Now even the sky has become mild and bland.

The books is mostly a narrative of that one summer long ago, the last time he and Keith were friends.  Every once in a while the elder Stephen interjects the narrative to question what he was thinking, what he really knew, what he currently knows.  When he thinks back on the moment in that summer when Keith said those five words that changed everything, his older self muses:

I don’t think I say anything at all.  I think I just look at Keith with my mouth slightly open, as I’ve done so many times before, waiting to find out what comes next. Am I surprised? Of course I’m surprised — but then I’m often surprised by Keith’s announcements. I was surprised when he first told me that Mr. Gort, who lives alone at No. 11, was a murderer. But then, when we investigated, we found some of the bones of his victims in the waste ground just beyond the top of his garden.

So I’m surprised, certainly, but not as surprised as I should be now. And of course I’m immediately excited, because I can see all kinds of interesting new possibilities opening up, for hiding and watching in the gloaming, for sending and receiving messages in invisible ink, for wearing the moustaches and beards in Keith’s disguises kit, for examining things through Keith’s microscope.

Keith, beginning a new game, has disclosed some fact, made up (which the younger Stephen knows and doesn’t know) that causes the two boys to delve too deep into the private lives of their families. What comes out of this is a superb story about a young man’s opaque understanding of his surroundings, even those closest to him.

What Iwant to know, though, is why there’s something awkward about going out to play on Friday evening. Why my father has never killed any Germans. Why no one in the whole of my family is in the RAF. Why we have an embarrassing name like Wheatley. Why we can’t be called something more like Hayward. There’s something sad about our life, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

There are sad secrets in both families, and in many others. Frayn doesn’t stop there, either, though. Because he’s going through two different time periods, he’s also able to examine not just what the secrets mean to those who come to know them but he’s able to examine what it means to look for those secrets in the first place, what that process does to someone.

I like that when I read a Frayn work, I want to read it all in one sitting. He knows how to keep the narrative moving. But I particularly like that while the narrative is moving Frayn is able to dig deeply into character and motives. Spies did not disappoint me in the slightest.

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By |2016-06-09T17:08:18-04:00May 3rd, 2010|Categories: Book Reviews, Michael Frayn|Tags: , , , |3 Comments


  1. Anna van Gelderen May 3, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I loved Headlong, and then kept back from reading Spies, because like you I rather like reading about shenanigans in the art world but I am lukewarm about spies. Now you’ve made me so curious about Spies that I have just ordered a copy on-line (it was incredibly cheap, that helped too ;-)).

  2. KevinfromCanada May 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    I am a Frayn devotee and sprinted to buy this one when it came out. I was somewhat disappointed then but this review convinces me that that was a clear case of too high expectations. One paragraph into the review, I was back into memories of the book and could recall them in some detail — a sign that it was a much better book than I first thought.

    So, my bad. I can say that Frayn’s back catalogue is every bit as intriguing as the two that Trevor has read and reviewed, but like him and Anna my interest in the art world still leaves Headlong as my favorite.

  3. Colette Jones May 3, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Spies was my first Frayn and I loved it. I have since gone on to Tin Men, Now You Know, and more recently, Headlong. I would say that Spies is still my favourite, but I am impressed with the variety of his books. None of these were at all similar to another except for exceptional writing.

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