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Spies: A Novel

Spies: A Novel

4.0 1
by Michael Frayn

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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
From the bestselling author of Headlong, and “a master of intellectual mystery masquerading as ripping popular entertainment...a gorgeous melancholy that shivers the mind.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Marvelously effective...a novel of extraordinary power and wisdom, a tour de force of humane insight.” —The Baltimore Sun

“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.” —John Updike, The New Yorker

“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.” —Boston Herald

“[Spies] convinces American readers that Frayn, author of some thirteen novels and sixteen plays, is a literary double threat.” —The Boston Globe

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.
Michiko Kakutani
Ingenious....As entertaining as it is intelligent, as stimulating as it is funny.
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Michael Upchurch
Finely wrought and highly comical....Frayn is a writer who likes to pull the rug out from under your feet while offering you the most seductive of smiles.
—Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
New Yorker
Part detective story, part art history lesson, part cautionary tale, and entirely funny.
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.

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The third week of June, and there it is again: the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time. I catch it on the warm evening air as I walk past the well-ordered gardens in my quiet street, and for a moment I'm a child again and everything's before me—all the frightening, half-understood promise of life.

It must come from one of the gardens. Which one? I can never trace it. And what is it? It's not like the heartbreaking tender sweetness of the lime blossom, for which this city's known, or the serene summer happiness of the honeysuckle. It's something quite harsh and coarse. It reeks. It has a kind of sexual urgency to it. And it unsettles me, as it always does. I feel ... what? A restlessness. A longing to be over the woods at the end of the street and away, away. And yet at the same time I have a kind of homesickness for where I am. Is that possible? I have a feeling that something, somewhere, has been left unresolved, that some secret thing in the air around me is still waiting to be discovered.

Another hint of it as the summer breeze stirs, and I know that the place I should like to be off to is my childhood. Perhaps the home I'm homesick for is still there, after all. I can't help noticing, as I do every summer in late June, when thatsweet reek comes, that there are cheap flights to that far-off nearby land. Twice I pick up the phone to book; twice I put it down again. You can't go back, everyone knows that ... So I'm never going, then? Is that what I'm deciding? I'm getting old ... Who knows—this year may be the last chance I'll get ...

But what is it, that terrible disturbing presence in the summer air? If only I knew what the magic blossom was called, if only I could see it, perhaps I'd be able to identify the source of its power. I suddenly catch it while I'm walking my daughter and her two small children back to their car after their weekly visit. I put a hand on her arm. She knows about plants and gardening. "Can you smell it? There ... now ... What is it?"

She sniffs. "Just the pines," she says. There are tall pines growing in all the sandy gardens, sheltering the modest houses from the summer sun and making our famously good air fresh and exhilarating. There's nothing clean or resinous, though, about the reek I can detect insinuating itself so slyly. My daughter wrinkles her nose. "Or do you mean that rather ... vulgar smell?"

I laugh. She's right. It is a rather vulgar smell.

"Liguster," she says.

Liguster ... I'm no wiser. I've heard the word, certainly, but no picture comes to mind, and no explanation of the power it has over me. "It's a shrub," says my daughter. "Quite common. You must have seen it in parks. Very dull-looking. It always makes me think of depressing Sunday afternoons in the rain." Liguster ... No. And yet, as another wave of that shameless summons drifts over us, everything inside me stirs and shifts.

Liguster ... And yet it's whispering to me of something secret, of some dark and unsettling thing at the back of my mind,of something I don't quite like to think about ... I wake up in the night with the word nagging at me. Liguster ...

Hold on, though. Was my daughter speaking English when she told me that? I get down the dictionary ... No—she wasn't. And as soon as I see what it is in English I can't help laughing again. Of course! How obvious! I'm laughing this time partly out of embarrassment because a professional translator shouldn't be caught out by such a simple word—and also because, now I know what it is, it seems such a ridiculously banal and inappropriate cue for such powerful feelings.

Now all kinds of things come back to me. Laughter, for a start. On a summer's day nearly sixty years ago. I've never thought about it before, but now there she is again, my friend Keith's mother, in the long-lost green summer shade, her brown eyes sparkling, laughing at something Keith has written. I see why, of course, now that I know what it was, scenting the air all around us.

Then the laughter's gone. She's sitting in the dust in front of me, weeping, and I don't know what to do or what to say. All around us once again, seeping unnoticed into the deepest recesses of my memory, to stay with me for the rest of my life, is that sweet and luring reek.

Keith's mother. She must be in her nineties now. Or dead. How many of the others are still alive? How many of them remember?

What about Keith himself? Does he ever think about the things that happened that summer? I suppose he may be dead, too.

Perhaps I'm the only one who still remembers. Or half remembers. Glimpses of different things flash into my mind, in random sequence, and are gone. A shower of sparks ... Afeeling of shame ... Someone unseen coughing, trying not to be heard ... A jug covered by a lace weighted with four blue beads ...

And, yes—those words spoken by my friend Keith that set everything off in the first place. It's often hard to remember the exact words that someone uttered half a century ago, but these are easy, because there were so few of them. Six, to be precise. Spoken quite casually, like the most passing of remarks, as light and insubstantial as soap bubbles. And yet they changed everything.

As words do.

I suddenly have the feeling that I should like to think about all this at some length, now I've started, and to establish some order in it all, some sense of the connections. There were things that no one ever explained. Things that no one even said. There were secrets. I should like to bring them out into the daylight at last. And I sense the presence still, even now that I've located the source of my unrest, of something at the back of it all that remains unresolved.

I tell my children I'm going to London for a few days. "Do we have a contact for you there?" asks my well-organized daughter-in-law.

"Memory Lane, perhaps," suggests my son drily. We are evidently all speaking English together. He can sense my restlessness.

"Exactly," I reply. "The last house before you go round the bend and it turns into Amnesia Avenue."

I don't tell them that I'm following the track of a shrub that flowers for a few weeks each summer and destroys my peace.

I certainly don't tell them the name of the shrub. I scarcely like to name it to myself. It's too ridiculous.

SPIES. Copyright © 2002 by Michael Frayn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

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.

Michael Frayn is the author of ten novels, including the bestselling Headlong, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist, and Spies, which received the Whitbread Fiction Award. He has also written a memoir, My Father's Fortune, and fifteen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards. He lives just south of London.

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Spies 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago