Thursday, 1 November 2012


Michael Frayn
London, Faber, 2002, 234p

This novel is part of my sixth form students' A-level study for English Literature, so I read it in order to support them with their revision. 

Spies is the story of Stephen Wheatley, who goes back to the street he grew up on after the smell of a plant drags up old memories of his childhood. He tells the reader about his childhood during the war - his suspicions that his friend's mother might be a German spy, and the consequences of his meddling with her actions. His memories are blurry and inconsistent - some of the events merge into one, or overlap, and it is never clear what was the truth and what was childhood fantasy.

I must admit, I found it a rather challenging book - the story is confused and disorganised, though that is a significant element of the plot. Stephen talks in the third person about his younger self, as if he is watching young Stephen rather than remembering what it was like. It's also all written in the present tense, even Stephen's recollections about his youth. I tend to find this a rather confusing style, but at the same time, I appreciate the effect.

I think the line between adulthood and childhood is an interesting theme in this novel. Children have secrets from adults, either because they are scared of being told of, or because they do not think the adults will believe them. Adults have secrets from children, because it is assumed they will not understand. But all these secrets cause suspicion, which lead to trouble. 

Additionally, gossip overlaps with these secrets. The adults in the street talk amongst each other, and when the children overhear, the secrets get mixed with rumour and imagination. The truth gets lost. 

I don't envy the students who have to read this for their examinations - it's pretty heavy going. But the themes are clear and interlink easily, so I think revision of the story should be relatively simple.

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