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Recommended Reads: Spies, by Michael Frayn

Written by Chris Routledge, 7th January 2008

Kate McDonnell is a project worker at Get Into Reading.


by Michael Frayn

I read Spies twice last year: once in my head, in a cosy and secluded Devon cottage with log fire burning (well…it was July!) and again aloud, chapter by chapter, week by week, together with nine other people in one of my Get Into Reading groups--and loved it both times.

It’s a story about childhood and aging, identity and personal responsibility, friendship and sexual awakening, mind and remembering and is told by Stephen Wheatley, now an old man, who returns to the street he used to live in as a boy to find that ‘everything is as it was and everything has changed’. If you’ve got a few decades under your belt you know just what he means.

Stephen struggles with the beguiling unreliability of memory as he recollects a period of his life lived fifty years ago during World War II, when he was friends with a rather unpleasant boy called Keith, when they played a game of make-believe they almost believed in, when they decided that Keith’s mother was a German spy and was living a life of secrets and lies. It slowly dawns on Stephen the boy that Keith’s mother does indeed have secrets, but they are not what he expects and are just outside his childish sphere of experience and understanding. The discovery is painful, the game damaging, and Stephen’s adult self has returned to re-examine the innocently destructive actions of the person he once was--and still is.

I enjoyed the drifting of tenses of the book, the shifting identities of boy and man, the complexities of telling your own story honestly and the impossibility of leaving it uncoloured by experience. It was also a great book to get to know people through as in our reading group we brought in photos of ourselves as children, stared into our own eyes and tried to trace the thread of connection, as Stephen does:

…he’s monochrome because this is how I recognise him now, from the old black and white snaps I have at home, that my grandchildren laugh at in disbelief when I tell them it’s me. I share their incredulity. I shouldn’t have the slightest idea what Stephen Wheatley looks like if it weren’t for the snaps, or ever guess that he and I were related if it weren’t for the name written on the back.

A few people in the group felt like Stephen, but most could still see themselves in their pictures. One woman revealed that she often does go back to the street she grew up in and stands and remembers, and the book stirred up much nostalgia and, I think, tenderness for our lost selves. It also made us laugh.

It was interesting to see how early--and how late--in the narrative different people in the group guessed what Keith’s mother was really doing. It seems, with our adult knowledge, we’re meant to leap onto the next stepping stone of story just ahead of young Stephen, but some just stuck right with him!

It’s a book that straddles innocence and experience and sometimes you don’t know which side you’ll fall into--even now.

by Kate McDonnell

Here's a link to reviews of Spies.

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