Posted by: Sarah | April 18, 2006

What I Read on my Hols II: Spies by Michael Frayn

Spies by Michael Frayn proved to be an example of that oxymoronic genre, the modern literary page-turner. It was a cracking good read with a suspense-filled plot, 3D characters and the kind of thoughtfulness that ought to be, but often isn’t, associated with Booker prizewinners. It won the Whitbread Novel of the Year Prize in 2002.

Set in World War II England, the story revolves around schoolboy friends Stephen and Keith, who live in respectable, neatly-gardened suburbia, their imaginations fired by the war which has as yet touched them only remotely (a German bomb landed on a nearby house, and Keith’s uncle is an RAF officer). One day, Keith says to Stephen the “six words which were to change my life” and sets the boys on a mission to spy on Keith’s mother, who regularly disappears during her frequent trips to the local shops for her sister, whose husband (Keith’s uncle) is apparently missing in action.

Apart from the main mystery, which is satisfyingly resolved (not always the case in literary novels), there are others such as Stephen’s family background and the identity of the people living in a neighbouring house where the blackout blinds are always drawn. But the framework of the novel and its beautifully delineated characters serve to give us a vivid, not to say pungent, portrait of life in middle-class English suburbia during the Second World War. There are subtle class distinctions: privately-educated Keith is a cut above grammar-school boy Stephen, and his coolly elegant mother with her antiques and daily cleaning lady is in contrast to Stephen’s mousy mother, mired in harassed, shabby domesticity; Keith’s father, frightening yet somehow frightened, doesn’t go out to work while Stephen’s kindly but distracted father is often away on business about which he never speaks. The schoolboy mind, with its lurid imaginings and petty cruelties, is well brought out too: the boys find bones in a neighbour’s garden, so the neighbour must be a murderer; their interpretation of the “coded” marks in Keith’s mother’s diary are comically wrongheaded; and Stephen, an awkward, shy, unattractive child, is known to his classmates as “weeny, weedy Wheatley” and gets his jug ears painfully pulled.

It’s the relationship between Stephen and Keith that lies at the heart of the novel. Keith is the leader and Stephen, in awe of Keith’s superior knowledge, the follower, though often against his better judgment which of course he doesn’t trust. And yet when a girl intrudes, it’s Stephen she’s attracted to. But by this time, clumsy Stephen has committed an unforgivable betrayal and entered a grown-up world as strange and dangerous as the war itself.

The novel is “bookended” by Stephen as an old man recalling his childhood. In the wrong hands, this sort of thing can be an annoyingly pretentious gimmick but here it works perfectly, giving an adult perspective to boyhood happenings and drawing the reader into a story which the older Stephen has, for reasons which will eventually become clear, chosen to forget until reminded by the distinctive smell of a ubiquitous garden shrub from his childhood. So Spies is also about memory, about what we choose to remember (or forget) and why.


  1. I must read this. I read his Towards the End of the Morning a couple of years ago and loved it.

  2. We’re looking for a book reviewer if you’d be interested.

  3. Sounds interesting. Too bad I can’t get into books with kid protags. I’ve tried several times but I don’t care about them. (I gave up on Harry Potter; and Pullman’s Dark Materials, a present from a friend, are gracing my shelves half read despite the fact I like the setting. Maybe I should give them another try.)

    BTW, that weather forecast thingie on your sidebar is too large, it makes the sidebar tumble to the bottom of the page.

  4. Gabriele

    Maybe you don’t get on with Harry Potter and Dark Materials because they’re written for children? “Spies” is very much a novel for grownups, because even though it’s written from a child’s POV, it’s done with adult hindsight.

    Re: the weather forecast thingie. It does what you said when I use my AOL browser but not on Mozilla which I mainly use. Anyway, I’ve changed it to something smaller, which does the trick. Thanks!

  5. Faith

    I’ve already got my hands full with doing reviews for The Historical Novel Review besides my full-time job. But thanks for asking!

  6. Kimbofo

    I read somewhere that “Spies” was Michael Frayn’s least difficult or most accessible novel, which is why I chose it. I think I could cope with something a bit more “difficult” now, so I’ll put “Towards the End of the Morning” on my TBR Tower — did you find it “difficult” at all? I wonder what that means anyway?

  7. No, not difficult at all. Hilariously funny. See my review here:

    Actually, his most difficult work is, I think, ‘Copenhagen’. I saw the play a couple of years back in the West End and while the subject was fascinating, I found it a bit ‘worthy’ and yawned pretty much all the way through it!

  8. Kimbofo

    Thanks for the recommendation and your review link. Comic novels are really hard to pull off, I think, but this sounds like a winner!

  9. I enjoyed Spies very much. My father recommended it to me: he was about the same age as Keith and Stephen during the war, and lived in a similar environment.

    I’d previously really liked Frayn’s A Landing on the Sun which captures what life in the Whitehall Civil Service is really like better than any other book I’ve read (although The Corridors of Power by C P Snow is pretty good, if a little dated now).

  10. I am studying Spies as part of my Higher English. My exam is in 17 days and counting, the thing is i really need to pass this and i dont have a clue. All the essays i have written on this novel have all came back with “to thin” writen all over it. Can anyone help me?

  11. I just finished reading A landing on the Sun and when I completed it was very intrigued by the way the book ended. Especially in the last tape where Summerchild describes the physical attributes of what ever that they were investigating. “Transparent, weightless, radiates light and energy, mildly hallucinogenic but inherently unstable, rapidly decays into a dense black inert material which is very hard to dispose of …only in laboratory conditions…further research…whether it can be manufactured in bulk”; was Summerchild describing happiness and unhappiness or did Brian Jessel get the whole thing wrong (or was lead into getting it wrong) given the fact that time and period when the investigation was on. Why is the book called “A landing in the Sun”, is it because defining happiness is like landing on the Sun?

  12. my name’s Lizzie and i have to write an AS essay about how the relationship of Keith and Stephen is presented in chapters 1 to 5. can anyone please help me?

  13. one of the most mind numbingly dull books i have ever studied.

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