Spies by Michael Frayn


When I recently read A Life of My Own by Claire Tomlin, I learned that she is married to Michael Frayn. I so admired his book Headlong, I was moved to read this one. I was surprised by how disconcerted I was by this book, as I was expecting a light-hearted romp involving young boys playing spy games during wartime.

The narrator begins the tale by describing the sensation he has each spring when the scent of a particular hedge reaches him. His daughter tells him it is liguster and leaves us to look that up to determine that it’s privet that unnerves him so. It takes him back 50 or 60 years during the war when he, Stephen, is in thrall to his imperious friend Keith.

Stephen the elderly man makes the trip to his childhood neighborhood and begins his inquiry into the Stephen of his youth:

Didn’t Stephen love his own family, then? Didn’t he appreciate at the time the qualities that he discovered in them later and that affected him more and more deeply as he got older?  I don’t think he ever thought about whether he loved them or not. They were his family, and that was all there was to it.

For most of the book the narrator is the child Stephen, though the elderly man makes occasional appearances, wondering what the child was actually thinking and reflecting on his time prowling around the old neighborhood as he tries to bring back the momentous events of those days.

Keith was in charge and facts were only facts if he said so. His games involved dramatic undertakings, such as uncovering the murders he was certain their neighbor Mr. Gort committed. The day he announced that his mother was a German spy marked the beginning of a game that exposed adult activities the child Stephen didn’t understand. Their spying involved hiding in the privet, recording the activities of his mother, including what they found in her diary.

There was as light-hearted aspect to the book, as exemplified by Keith’s bad spelling on the sign he posted on the hedge, “privet,” which was not intended to identify the plant. At the same time Keith’s ominous father loomed over the proceedings, ultimately being as frightening as he seemed. Once Keith withdrew from the game, Stephen was left to try to be brave and make good choices when he couldn’t possibly understand what was happening and was unable to summon up the bravery he hoped for.


So here it is:  the boys uncovered Keith’s mother’s visits to a man hiding in a wild area near their house. He turned out to be her brother-in-law who rather than being a war hero as everyone thought, was a wounded deserter. Her care for him is disrupted when the boys’ activities alerted her jealous husband to the situation. The child Stephen continued to half think that she was communicating with a German to betray her country. It was a situation that was never going to turn out well, but the boys’ actions hastened a bad end. It’s unclear what the adults of the neighborhood knew eventually, because of course Stephen was not told. The age of the two boys is never mentioned and the question of what a child begins to understand at any given age is the big question here.

I found this a nerve-wracking book which demonstrates to me once again that I don’t like the sensation of knowing something bad is about to happen and I don’t know what it is. Even in a book.

One last thing I want to remember. Mr. Booklog finds blooming privet evocative of happy memories of childhood, not a dreadful event.

Michael Frayn, Spies, Henry Holt and Company, 2002, 261 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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