Spies by Michael Frayn tells the story of Stephen Wheatley who returns to his childhood home having been driven to remember the events of one summer during WW2 by the smell of a plant that haunts him. The whole book is told from the point of view of the adult trying to recover and examine the events which occurred. This makes for an unusual narrative style as the author relays an event and then asks himself what he thought at the time and what he should have known. I liked the way that the book is told but it is not a page turner – the story is revealed slowly and carefully.
Stephen and his family live in a suburban avenue. They know all the people that live in each house and Stephen is particular friends with Keith who lives with his parents and is the leader in games that they play. The author conjures up the sense of childhood very well – Stephen is never quite sure what is going on and he and Keith attribute motives and behaviours to others that come from their limited experience of the world. You get the feeling that Stephen, as a child, was an observer and an outsider, and when he is required to act he becomes anxious and hesitant.
During the summer Keith decides that someone is a spy for the Germans (trying not to give too many spoilers). The boys start to follow this person and to make up stories based on their limited understanding of what they are seeing. In fact something is happening and this is revealed to us as the children begin to understand it too.
There are some adult themes in this book and what is really happening is very serious. Stephen becomes a go-between and he fails at what he is asked – he is, after all, a child with an imperfect understanding of the situation. In the end there is tragedy.
This is a clever book. The author builds the tension up beautifully and uses Stephen’s imperfect understanding to do it. The person Stephen thinks is an enemy is also a victim and those he thinks are his friends may not be loyal. As an adult you understand that some things that Stephen thinks as a child cannot possibly be true but you can also see the hidden anguish and evil where Stephen imperfectly understands.
The war and its effects on communities and individuals is the setting of this book but the theme is really childhood and growing up. The author ties everything up nicely at the end but certainly leaves you thinking.