‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn tells the story of Stephen Wheatley, who returns to the quiet street where he lived as a young boy in England during the Second World War and looks back on a particular incident when his friend Keith announces that his mother is a German spy. The boys soon get caught up in solving this mystery only for new discoveries to be made instead.
I think this book is still on the syllabus for GCSE and AS Level English Literature in the UK. I can imagine that analysing all the themes and subtleties in ‘Spies’ would probably be pretty tedious, but if you are reading it without exam board marking schemes in mind, then it is probably easier to appreciate it. ‘Spies’ has been compared to ‘The Go-Between’ by L. P. Hartley and it is easy to see why as both are convincingly written from the point of view of a child dealing with adult realities. All of Frayn’s characters are well drawn and believable and the reader will feel very manipulated by the end (in a satisfying way, of course). ‘Spies’ is quite a short book but I didn’t feel it needed to be any longer as Frayn pitches the narrative pace very well.
I didn’t really like how the ‘revelations’ in the final few pages were tagged on to the end of the story as a sort of afterthought but then I suppose including this aspect in the actual story would have changed the entire dynamic (sorry for being a bit vague here but I can’t really give anything away!). Apart from that, I thought ‘Spies’ was a convincing and thought-provoking novel. Childhood naivety can be a painful topic but the controlled writing makes ‘Spies’ an unsettling but ultimately compelling read.