2002, 213 p.
For Proust it was a madeleine. For the narrator of Spies it was the cloying, heady smell of a flower in a suburban garden, and it took him back to a wartime summer, a hideout in the garden hedge, secrets, fantasies and ambivalent shame.
Stephen Wheatley was small and unpopular, with ears that stuck out. His friend Keith was unpopular too, but he lived in a big house, his toys were kept in pristine condition in their boxes, and the afternoon teas dispensed by Keith’s mother were Blytonesque, even if she did so without ever quite acknowledging Stephen’s presence. Stephen was drawn along in Keith’s wake and when Keith announced that his mother was a German spy, well, then- yes, perhaps she was. After all, there was her diary with the odd crosses once a month in keeping with the phases of the moon (for night-time spying duties, of course), and she seemed to spend a lot of time going into the village posting letters (to the German authorities, of course) or pretending to shop for her sister who lived down the street. So the boys snooped in her writing desk and followed her, and found more than they had bargained for.
This is a beautifully told story. It has that wistful, golden glow of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and as in those books, the narrator in Spies also sees too much and yet doesn’t know what s/he is looking at.
Frayn’s control of the story is masterful, especially in the switch between present tense and reminiscence, which can be clunky in less sure hands. This was the second time that I had read the book, but I think even the first time I quickly cottoned on to Stephen’s misconstructions – just as Frayn, I think, intended his readers to do. The story is told with humour and humility, and the adult Stephen is affectionately kind to his younger self and withholds judgment from him. Little details fit together so cleverly- the play on ‘privet’ for example- and the last chapter colours in much of what had only been sketchy or incomplete previously.
I really liked this book, just as much on the second reading as on the first. You’re in the hands of a master writer, and you know it.