‘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.
7 responses to “Spies by Michael Frayn”
I’ll definitely have to check this one out. I’ve never heard of it. Thanks for the review!
I agree with you about the ending, although you’re right, you can’t discuss it without giving too much away. Have you read ‘Headlong’, which I think is a better book than this? And do you know his work as a playwright? For me he is a better playwright than novelist. See ‘Copenhagen’ or ‘Noises Off’ if you ever get the chance.
No, I haven’t but I will try and check it out soon – thanks for the recommendation!
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Headlong is certainly worth reading but don’t bother with his latest Skios.
I had to read Spies as part of my AS-level a good few years ago. I can’t say I really appreciated it at the time, maybe it’s something I’ll return to. Nevertheless, the sense of perspective it gives as being a subjective thing, that truth is a troubling or problematic concept, especially in the context of a war and ‘the Home Front’ (a much romanticised period) is something I think I’d appreciate on returning.
I’m in agreement with Alex above, his play Copenhagen is truly excellent. I wrote a presentation for my undergrad which I adapted here: http://allswellthatreadswell.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/copenhagen-by-michael-frayn-1998/
Thanks for the review. I have just finished this and I think you capture the essence of the book well. In Australia this book it on the final year students’ reading lists too. I can see why!