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Spies: A Novel Hardcover – April 3, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

In Michael Frayn's novel Spies an old man returns to the scene of his seemingly ordinary suburban childhood. Stephen Wheatley is unsure of what he is seeking, but as he walks once-familiar streets he hasn't seen in 50 years, he unfolds a story of childish games colliding cruelly with adult realities. It is wartime and Stephen's friend Keith makes the momentous announcement that his mother is a German spy. The two boys begin to spy on the supposed spy, following her on her trips to the shops and to the post office, and reading her diary. Keith's mother does have secrets to conceal but they are not the ones the boys suspect. Frayn skillfully manipulates his plot so that the reader's growing awareness of the truth remains just a few steps beyond young Stephen's dawning realization that he is trespassing on painful and dangerous territory. The only false notes occur in the final chapter when the central revelation is too swiftly followed by further disclosures about Stephen and his family that seem somehow unnecessary and make the denouement less satisfyingly conclusive. This is a much sparer and less expansive book than Frayn's 1999 novel Headlong, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. --Nick Rennison,

From 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 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (April 3, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805070583
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805070583
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #490,970 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Frayn was born in London in 1933 and began his career as a journalist on the Guardian and the Observer. His novels include Towards the End of the Morning, The Trick of It and Landing on the Sun. Headlong (1999) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while his most recent novel, Spies (2002), won the Whitbread Novel Award. His fifteen plays range from Noises Off to Copenhagen and most recently Afterlife.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Glenn Miller on May 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
In a marked departure from his previous humorous novel, Headlong, Frayn delivers a wonderful look at the complicated world of a child. During his own childhood (the early years of World War II), Frayn's best friend makes the statement to him, "My mother is a German spy." In writing this novel, Frayn takes this true event and plays the "what if" game. The two friends know that this is just a game, just a means of passing a summer afternoon, but what if they spy on her and start to see actions that might indicate that she truly is a spy? It's a wonderful look at how perplexing the adult world can be to a child, and how wrong our impressions -- either as a child or as an adult -- can be when we don't explore the full picture. Frayn throws a clever curveball at the very end of the book, one which could have been predicted by the careful reader. It's unfortunate that this book has come out at the same time that Ian McEwan's book, Atonement, was issued, since they are somewhat similar in theme (the wide ramifications of a child's actions during World War II), and it may ultimately get lost in the literary shuffle. That's a shame, for reading it on its own is a terrific way to spend a weekend.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 24, 2003
Format: Paperback
Michael Frayn's "Spies", the 2002 Whitbread Prize winner, is a quintessentially English novel that recalls L P Hartley's classic "The Go Between". Both novels begin with an old man indulging in the queasily pleasurable habit of visiting the past when as a young boy he was innocent of the tragedy his childish detective games would set in motion for the adults and end with a stark recognition that resonates with an indescribable pain we feel for the ruined lives they have caused. The rush of familiar smells and the recollection of other childish secrets like a misspelled password trigger off a flood of memories for the adult Stephen Wheatley. These in turn become the catalyst for unravelling the secrets that underlie the mystery that consumed the boy Stephen and his playmate Keith one fateful summer.
Frayn flits skilfully between past to present but when we enter the world of the boy Stephen, we become child observers too. We don't have a head start in our understanding of what is happening among the adults because our senses are his. Even Keith's mother - like all mothers - doesn't have a name. The suspicious routines that preoccupy Keith's mother - her constant shuttling between home and her sister's or the post office, and her mysterious disappearance from sight every time she turns the corner - is shrouded in a mystery that deepens with vague hints of cruelty and abuse that only the adult Stephen is able to discern. Indeed, the relationship between Stephen and Keith is hardly a friendship, more an emblem of their class differences, which allow the middle class Keith to play leader to the socially inferior Stephen. In the same way, Keith's parents exude a distance and coolness that is slightly unnerving.
Frayn's characterisation is flawless.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Looking back on events of his childhood from the wisdom of old age, Stephen Wheatley recounts important events from his childhood. Frayn tells a story of 2 boys inventing a world around them, with the second world war unfolding around them, unsurprisingly they are obsessed with the idea of spies in their midst. Their increasing obsession with their game, leads them to some unexpected discoveries.
This book is full of acute observations of youth. Outlandish games, the fickleness of children towards each other, the towering and unquestionable domination of adults over their lives.
I enjoy stories where the innocence and naievity of youth is retold through knowing adult eyes and this book was no exception. Its part mystery, part rites of passage. Well written and incredibly evocative of childhood and days gone by.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Gwen Orel on July 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
First of all: Frayn is a good writer. Best known as a playwright, this is not a play trying to be a novel-- there is dialogue, yes, but also lots of description and atmosphere. I applaud him for knowing which medium this story demanded, and for his versatility and skills.
The six immortal words that change Stephen's life are his best friend Keith's "My mother is a German spy."
Of course, any adult reader doubts that right away, but Keith is so odd and creepy that as he and Stephen (the narrator) set to trailing his mother there is an awful sense of tension and looming tragedy.
It's impossible not to think of L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, if you've read it-- in that book likewise a man remembers being a child engaging in a mystery that was not what it seems. That book really does amount to heartbreak and inevitable tragedy. Partly that's because the adult reader understands what is going on better than the narrator.
In Frayn's novel, the older narrator has barely more insight than he did as a child-- and there's an irritating sense that things are being deliberately held back from the reader. The revelations, when we finally get to them, are not satisfying enough for me.
As a portrait of tension, suspicion and wartime paranoia, along with the awkwardness of adolescent friendships and loyalties, Frayn succeeds. But as a mystery, it's frustrating...the tension is both too much and not enough. The reader knows that whatever theory the boys come up with is wrong, and it takes too long to see that there is a mystery at all... so it never grabbed me with its urgency.
If you read it for the mood and not for the story, it is well written and worthwhile... for me it never really gelled.
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