Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Spies by Michael Frayn

This is a review also for Book beginnings on Friday.

The third week of June, and there it is again: the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time. I catch it on the warm evening air as I walk past the well-ordered gardens in my quiet street, and for a moment I’m a child again and everything’s before me – all the frightening, half-understood promise of life.

This is the beginning of this wonderful book by Michael Frayn. Frayn is a very active writer and has written both fiction, plays and for television. His prose is simple but beautiful and very descriptive. The story is simple but he still manages to keep you attention all through the book and it is even difficult to put it down because you think there will be a rational explanation in the end.

The two boys Keith and Stephen are best friends, living in the same street and only having each other. Stephen is the old man in the introduction above who goes back to his childhood street to remember what really happened during a few months during the Second World War in their little corner of the world. 

Keith and Stephen create a hideout place in the end of the street among the wilderness there. From there they have a good view over the street and start spying on what people are doing. It is quite innocent until one day Keith says: ‘My mother is a German spy.’

Stephen is chocked and can’t believe it. Nevertheless, the mother is acting a little bit strange so they start follow her when she goes on her usual shopping round or to the letter box. She seems to be writing a lot of letter! When they round the corner to the shopping street she has disappeared. This is repeated and they have to think of another way to find out where she is going.

It turns out she is not going shopping at all, but turning into an old tunnel under the railway. They follow her and once she is gone they find a small box with things inside; a shirt, socks etc. Their fantasy start working and they are now almost sure that she is hiding a German soldier.

Michael Frayn
I will not reveal more of the story here. Keith is a single child and Stephen admires his parents and their house, which is much more ordered than his own. He is the only one invited to play with Keith. Little by little, Stephen realises that maybe things are not as good as they seem, apart from the mother being a German spy?

It is a beautifully written account on two youngsters and their fantasies and games. I remember myself, reading the Nancy Drew books, Enid Blyton’s ‘Five’ books an others and thinking how it would be to solve a mystery. One time my friend and myself followed a lady in black through the streets of our village. There had recently been a crime film on TV called ‘The Lady in Black’ and it was all a little bit scary. When we saw this lady we decided to follow her. That is, until at a certain point she stopped, turned around and stared angrily at us. We then turned and ran all the way home. Of course, in our fantasy, doing what she did she must be really suspicious of something. The poor lady was probably just doing her shopping! This book makes me remember how it was to be young. It is so well described in an understated kind of way. And we never know what is hiding behind the well-trimmed hedges and house facades around us!

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