Spies by Michael Frayn

During junior school I became obsessed with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels. My classmate, John, was equally obsessed and we started competing to see who could collect all 21 books in the series. This was more of a challenge than it might sound. Neither of us had enough spare money to buy the entire collection and birthdays and Christmases came around too slowly. So whenever the opportunity presented itself we would scour local charity shops, the second hand book stall in St John’s Market, the ‘withdrawn books’ section of the local library, the book table at our church Bring and Buy…pretty much anywhere, really, where there was a chance we might get our hands on a FF book we didn’t have. Consequently my finished collection was a rag tag ensemble of ancient hardbacks, dog-eared paperbacks and a few newly bought copies looking out of place among their pre-loved companions.

Considering how much I read and re-read the FF books, it’s surprising how little I can remember about individual stories. I suppose it was the concept that captivated me rather than the details of a particular plot. I wanted to be George, the tomboy who cuts her hair and dresses like a boy. I wanted to own a scruffy, brown mongrel who would go everywhere with me, like Timmy. Most of all I longed for an adventure in the school holidays, to stumble upon a secret passage or a smugglers’ tunnel, unmask a criminal or discover lost treasure. I developed a ‘secret’ code and bought an invisible-ink pen and magnifying glass; I was ready.

If I’d been plunged into a Famous-Five-type-adventure for real, would I have liked it? Probably not. Yet this is the fate of Stephen Wheatley, the young narrator of Michael Frayn’s novel Spies.

Set during World War 2, Stephen finds himself caught up in an adventure when his friend, Keith Hayward, announces his mother is a German spy. The boys begin shadowing Mrs Hayward to gather evidence. They read her diary and discover something that ‘proves’ Keith is right: every 28 days the date is marked with an ‘x’. The boys decide this must be when she meets up with a mysterious Mister ‘x’ – Mrs H really is a German spy!

I smiled when I read this – I’ve put similar marks in my own diary (as women do) – but Frayn doesn’t allow the reader to stay comfortably superior for long. When the boys decide to follow Mrs Hayward to the shops she disappears and reappears behind them, back in their street. It seems there’s something odd going on with Mrs H after all…

As you will have gathered, Stephen’s child-like viewpoint makes him an unreliable narrator. Actually, he’s doubly unreliable because the story is told by adult-Stephen re-calling events of sixty years ago, meaning we have a child’s viewpoint AND the vagaries of memory. The upside of this device is that it allows readers space to form our own conclusions; the downside is that the resolution and explication cannot pin down every detail. And when Mrs H tries to enlist Stephen’s help and swears him to secrecy…to my mind that didn’t quite ring true.

Perhaps I’m nit-picking.  Overall, Spies was an engaging read. The book won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2002.

Rating: *** Highly recommended.

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