Spies

Spies

3.4 9
by Michael Frayn
     
 

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From the bestselling author of Headlong, a mesmerizing novel about secrecy, imagination, and a child's game turned deadly earnest.

The sudden trace of a disturbing, forgotten aroma compels Stephen Wheatley to return to the site of a dimly remembered but troubling childhood summer in wartime London. As he pieces together his scattered images, we

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Headlong, a mesmerizing novel about secrecy, imagination, and a child's game turned deadly earnest.

The sudden trace of a disturbing, forgotten aroma compels Stephen Wheatley to return to the site of a dimly remembered but troubling childhood summer in wartime London. As he pieces together his scattered images, we are brought back to a quiet, suburan street where two boys, Keith and his sidekick — Stephen — are engaged in their own version of the war effort: spying on the neighbors, recording their movements, ferreting out their secrets.

But when Keith utters six shocking words, the boys' game of espionage takes a sinister and unintended turn. A wife's simple errands and a family's ordinary rituals — once the focus of childish speculation — become the tragic elements of adult catastrophe.

In gripping prose, charged with emotional intensity, Spies reaches into the moral confusion of youth to reveal a reality filled with deceptions and betrayals, where the bonds of friendship, marriage, and family are unravelled by cowardice and erotic desire. Master illusionist Michael Frayn powerfully demonstrates, yet again, that what appears to be happening in front of our eyes often turns out to be something we can't see at all.

Michael Frayn is the author of nine novels, including the bestselling Headlong, which was a New York Times Editor's Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist. He has also written thirteen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 1999. He lives in London.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
By the author of the bestselling Booker Prize finalist Headlong, this dark, nostalgic and bittersweet parable evokes the childhood escapades of an isolated and hapless young boy caught up in the uncertainties of wartime London in the early 1940s, just after the horrors of the Luftwaffe blitz. Stephen Wheatley, now a grandfather living abroad, is drawn back to London to revisit his boyhood home, to deal with the complexities and eventual tragedy engendered by what seemed a harmless game of spy when he was just a schoolboy during WWII. His best friend at the time was Keith Hayward, the bright son of rather standoffish parents; Keith and Stephen embark on a childish adventure after Keith announces that his British mother is a German spy. The murky plot follows their frustrations as they try to shadow Keith's mum as she goes through the mundane ritual of stopping by her sister's house with letters and a shopping basket, only to disappear into the neighboring streets. Discovering at last that she takes a route through the culvert beneath the railroad and leaves letters in a box hidden on the other side, they eventually learn that she sometimes meets a tattered, bearded tramp hiding in a bombed-out cellar. When Keith's mum finally realizes they have found her out, she secretly seeks Stephen's loyalty, making him complicit. Thrust into a role far beyond his years, but helpless to refuse, he is overwhelmed. As it plays out to a surprising denouement, this enigmatic melodrama will keep readers' attention firmly in hand. (Apr. 3) Forecast: Fans of Headlong may miss that novel's dark comedy, but those who appreciate Frayn for the rigorous intelligence of his fiction will find him in fine form here. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Following up Booker Prize finalist Headlong and the Tony Award-winning Copenhagen, Frayn crafts a story of World War II London, where two boys playing at spy discover things about family and neighbors they shouldn't know. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Bitter memories of the home front during WWII resurface in this muted yet moving tenth novel from popular British author Frayn (The Copenhagen Papers, 2001, etc.) and playwright (Noises Off, etc.). In a Proustian prologue, a mysteriously sweet outdoor aroma evokes indistinct memories of its narrator Stephen Wheatley's youth in a tightly knit suburban "close" during the war years. Returning to his home village, the now elderly Stephen "sees" a series of scenes featuring his young self and his confident, domineering best friend Keith Hayward. "He was the officers corps in our two-man army," Stephen muses, while recalling the elaborate system of wires and tunnels the boys had constructed between their two houses, and the military games they had played in imitation of the larger conflict ongoing in Europe-culminating in acts of secrecy and surveillance prompted by Keith's astonishing declaration that "My mother … is a German spy." Frayn sticks close to Stephen's timid sensibility, thrown into tormented relief by the boy's growing suspicion that Mrs. Hayward's frequent brief absences from home and habit of "visiting" a nearby railway tunnel are undertaken, not out of solidarity with the enemy, but in order to meet with a lover-who is perhaps a "downed" German pilot, or an "old tramp" suspected of being a sexual deviant; or in fact something much less romantic and thrilling. The story is somewhat thinly plotted, and little seems to happen-outside Stephen's busy imagination, at least-for a distractingly long time. But Frayn holds our attention with sharp economical characterizations of the frail and beautiful Mrs. Hayward, Stephen's annoyingly ordinary own family, and Keith's supremelyself-confident father, a misogynistic martinet who virtually radiates smiling, perfectly controlled menace. Only a curious overabundance of climactic surprise-twists vitiates the skill with which Stephen's ordeal of subterfuge and guilt is portrayed. A bit reminiscent of L.P. Hartley's modern classic The Go-Between but, still, an essentially original and very affecting tale.
The New York Times Book Review
. . . a master of intellectual mystery masquerading as ripping popular entertainment. . .a gorgeous melancholy that shivers the mind.
The Baltimore Sun
Marvelously effective. . .a novel of extraordinary power and wisdom, a tour de force of humane insight.
The New Yorker John Updike
Bernard Shaw couldn't do it, Henry James couldn't do it, but the ingenious English author Michael Frayn does do it: write novels and plays with equal success. [He] has extended his reach and seriousness while keeping a sprightly intellectuality.
Boston Herald
In Spies, recollections of actual things—the 'disconcerting perfume' of privet hedges in bloom and the flavor of lemon barley water—make Frayn's story so real you can taste it.
The Boston Globe
[Spies] convinces American readers that Frayn, author of some thirteen novels and sixteen plays, is a literary double threat.
Chicago Sun-Times
In this very English novel, secrets assume an unexpected power and excitement as Frayn reveals that a little of the fascist is buried in every clever child, and that spying can be a soul-destroying game.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781405861830
Publisher:
Longman Group Limited
Publication date:
10/28/2007
Series:
York Notes Advanced Series
Pages:
135
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

I don't know how Keith notices the first of the secret signs. I realize that he's stopped turning the pages and brought the diary very close to his eyes, the magnifying glass forgotten.

"What?" I whisper. He points to the space for a Friday in January. It seems at first to be empty. Then I see some kind of handwritten mark, nestling inconspicuously in the little gap between the date itself and the phase of the moon: a tiny x.

He slowly turns the pages of his mother's diary. More x's. As I record them, a pattern begins to emerge — the x, whatever it is, happens once a month. In some places it's crossed out, and entered a day or two earlier or later.

"She has meetings," I suggest. "Secret meetings. They're planned in advance only sometimes the person can't come so they have to change the date . . ."

"Look at the moon," Keith whispers. I go back to the beginning, tracking the phases of moon. Yes, the little x's are approximately keeping step with the lunar calendar.

"The night of no moon," he says. The hairs rise on my neck. I can see the possibilities as clearly as he can — the unlit plane landing on the fairway of the golf course, the parachutist falling softly through the perfect darkness . . .

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