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'Spies' by Michael Frayn

Adolescent spies fuel plot of the British novel ‘Spies’

Sunday, March 31, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor



By Michael Frayn

Metropolitan Books


In his 70s, Stephen Wheatley realizes he must take a trip. Destination: Memory Lane. He’s looking for “the last house before you go round the bend and it turns into Amnesia Avenue.”

What touches off Wheatley’s desire is that old literary trick -- something sensual that triggers a remembrance, in this case the “vulgar” smell of privet hedge.

The odor takes him back to a terrible summer during World War II when he and his friend Keith were caught up in the adolescent fantasies of wartime.

They lived in a nameless suburb of London on a claustrophobic cul-de-sac or “close” of ordinary houses where privet hedges were great hiding places.

Stephen’s father is mostly absent on war business while Keith’s is usually -- and most curiously -- at home.

There are other differences. Stephen is slovenly, a poor student and pathetically insecure. Keith is neat, excels at school and confidently plans their games of childish adventure.

His latest game proves the most dangerous. “My mother is a German spy,” he tells Stephen one day.

“Do I ask Keith the first and most obvious question -- how he knows that she’s a spy? Of course not, any more than I’ve ever asked him how he knows that she’s his mother,” Stephen remembers years later.

The only thing that matters is that he and his friend have a new project -- spying. They have no idea why they jump so enthusiastically into this foolhardy pursuit.

Had they known how crucial escape from their unhappy lives meant to them, they might have rejected the preposterous idea out of hand.

The fact is that Keith’s father is a rigid, cold taskmaster who beats him with a cane and that Stephen feels so worthless in his family that he becomes his friend’s devoted stooge.

The one decent and strong character is Keith’s mother, whose comings and goings have another purpose. It’s a serious and personal one, one she’d rather hide.

The boys’ spying will endanger her efforts.

The skills of a playwright -- believable dialogue, a dramatic pacing of events and strong characters -- make Frayn an effective novelist, but perhaps not a great one.

Plays, after all, are often about the surface of things, while novels have the luxury to explore the depths. Frayn does scratch the surface in “Spies,” but not that deeply.

He also tacks on an artificial construct involving Stephen’s family that has no bearing on the rest of the novel. It’s a forced irony that lacks the conviction of the rest of the book.

Still, he has created a rich, well-rounded thriller of life on the home front, crammed with atmosphere and a sympathetic portrayal of adolescents confused by the power of war to affect their lives.

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