Read: November 2007
It is summertime, and an unknown scent awakens in Stephen memories of his youth. And when he discovers that the smell is Liguster, or ordinary English privet, Stephen is unable to ignore the flood of recollections about a particular summer when the simplicity of his childhood was curtailed by a series of events whose results still trouble him today. So begins Michael Frayn’s Whitbread Novel of the year winning book Spies, which investigates the lives of Stephen and his best friend Keith as their summer games uncover a secret which touches a nerve right at the heart of their community.
Stephen and Keith are average young boys growing up during wartime Britain with its rationing and its blackouts and its bomb damage. Whenever they get a free moment between homework and dinner and chores they play together in the neighbourhood, concocting grand schemes with which to make their mark on the world. But then, one day out of nowhere, Keith utters six words which change everything: "my mother is a German spy." And what begins as a childhood detective game quickly becomes caught up in mysteries which they soon realise may have been better left undiscovered. Because some things cannot be unlearned, just like childhood can never be renewed.
With Spies, Micahel Frayn collected the 2002 Whitbread novel of the year award only to be pipped to the overall book of the year prize by his wife Claire Tomalin's biography of Samuel Pepys. And you can see why he won the award, Spies is the sort of book which often wins literary prizes: a novel which is at once technically exceptional, carefully considered, deceptively simple and which rewards re-reading. The story is both simpler and infinitely more complex than either Stephen or the reader can ever hope to conceive, and the personal twist at the end is quietly evocative of everything that has gone before: undramatic, and yet earth shattering, like a bomb exploding underground. At 233 pages it is a small, perfectly contained, firecracker of a novel which everyone I know loved.
But I did not. Is there something I missed growing up? I don't remember any of these moments of discovery that you find littered around literature; those deeply disquieting discoveries through which the world is revealed to be so much more, and less, than you ever imagined. It is that notion that childhood was always leading somewhere, like a yellow brick road culminating in the adult here and now. But it was not like that, at least for me. Childhood was small, self contained and eternal, a way of thinking and seeing the world which slowly ebbed away to be replaced imperceptibly with a different concept of the world built by a thousand tiny events.
It seems to me that novels about childhood discovery are limited by one major obstacle: they are written by adults. Adults who have grown into adults, who no longer think like a child and as such impose adult order onto events which held only randomness, and chaos. But maybe that is just me.
And anyway, the point of this novel is that it is the story of the now elderly Stephen as he struggles to understand what his childhood self thought of the events at the time. And he repeatedly comes across barriers to understanding, both related to the fading of his memories and the transience of growing up.
There is virtually nothing to criticise Spies for. It is well written and intriguing and the mystery is complex, well conceived with much left unsaid. But I found it slightly empty of the greatness other had proclaimed for it, a good book without being exceptional. Nonetheless it is well worth reading, if for nothing else than to learn exactly how to contain, plan, structure and set a novel.
6.5 out of 10