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This beautiful novel by Michael Frayn explores the adventures of two young friends during a wartime summer in rural England. Stephen Wheatley returns to the quiet sleepy cul-de-sac some fifty years later and reflects on the events which changed everything for him. He was the junior rank in a two man army which becomes embroiled in a story of second-world-war espionage. Keith Hayward his best and perhaps only friend is a posh only child whilst Stephen is the younger brother in a family he is embarrassed about. The spies mentioned in the title are German agents who are appearing around every corner of every street in the boys imaginations.
Without telling us how old the two boys are the author explains their different social backgrounds and how the relationship between them grows in the face of difficult times which the young boys endured during wartime Britain. Rather than being able to grow up and play like young boys should their thoughts and pastimes are dominated by the horrors of war. Stephen doesn`t quite understand why Keith is his friend, he looks up to him and follows and believes in all of his boyish games. Keith has an imagination to marvel at, nothing is quite what it seems in his world. Mr Gort from no 11 is a "murderer" announced Keith and when he informed Stephen that his father was in the Secret Service and his mother was a German spy rather than not believing him Stephen felt jealous because he couldn`t muster up even one parent of any interest.
As the adventure unfolds we learn how the childish games of the boys are played out against a back drop of anti aircraft defences, bombsites and houses blacked out at night. Stephen is excited about the possibilities of wearing disguises and following people but he isn`t quite sure how Keith knows his mother is a spy. Together the boys begin to spy on the comings and goings of the residents in the quiet neighbourhood, believing almost everybody is a possible suspect they keep a secret log and make notes on all events. It seems that the German spies have infiltrated everywhere and when Keith`s mother appears to vanish into thin air whilst being followed, the fantasy world they have dreamed up emerges from the shadows and becomes a dark and sinister reality. The behaviour of Keith`s mother becomes something of a concern to the boys as the possibility of her really being a spy becomes more than just a fantasy. The author begins to focus on the strange behaviour of Keith`s family and keeps the reader guessing as to how the jigsaw fits together, why does his mother keep disappearing, what information could she be passing on, who else is involved.
The writer brings together many issues in Spies, we learn about life in war torn England, about how children are affected growing up with the threat of war. We see how the boy`s fantasies and playtimes are influenced by what is happening around them. Whilst they want to do the normal things adolescent boys would do they feel compelled to do their bit for the war effort. We wonder if the boys are trying to grow up too quickly, is their childhood disappearing before they have chance to meet girls and make friends and enjoy the summer as every child dreams of. This was my first Michael Frayn novel, for me it works as a mystery, a coming of age drama and a war time thriller. I found it a very engrossing read funny at times yet deeply serious, always delving into the perceptions children have of the adult world they aspire to join. Whilst the book is only 234 pages making a lot shorter than most mysteries I found I was compensated by the quality of the cleverly conceived plot and compelling misinterpretations of two young adolescent boys. The book will appeal to a wide range of people because of the nature of the story lines and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn`t had the pleasure of reading a Michael Fryan novel before.
This is a heartwarming book for anyone of any age. The friendship these boys have between eachother is amazing. They seem to always find a way to cause some kind of trouble. They Turn Keiths Mother Into a mystery, and cause lots of problems.
This book really made me think about times like this, when the book was set. It is in the middle of World War Two in a small close where two friends set off on an adventure that definately changes their lives. Stephen is a small boy that is bullied at school and only finds rest with his friend Keith when they play games. However the game they are about to embark on certainly isn't at all what they expected... I really loved this and i studied it at school for a while. While at the start everything seems innocent and straight forward, as the novel unfolds a more twisted plot unravels. Believe me this book is worth reading and Michael Frayn really portrays the two boys well with his distinct writing style and the characteristics the boys are given. All is not what it seems at the close... Will you find out why?
Stephen and Keith are two young boys living in a cul de sac in England going about the usual things they do, when they suddenly decide to start a spy mission on Keith's mother. By following her every move they slowly start to discover things they never thought they would and through their childish games they somehow manage to ruin things for other people.
Spies is a great book, with the narrator being the older Stephen looking back at his youth. It's a great tale of friendship between two boys, who although are from different social backgrounds, somehow manage to have a friendship, however that may turn out towards the end of the book.
It's also an interesting insight into life during the war in england as we hear about the blackouts, rations and other factors that seem so far away to the modern reader.
I would recommend spies to anybody of any age. If you are of the older generation and you remember this period, then It will no doubt bring back warm memories to you. If you are simply after a good read, you will find it with spies on many levels.
Isn't it funny how kids often seem to grow into the names they're given? Maybe names shape personality to some extent. Every Simon I've ever met has been a cheeky sod, for example, and boxers called Tarquin are quite thin on the ground. Okay, there are always exceptions to the rule - like the 1995 Mastermind champion, who was called Kevin. And I suppose there may be someone out there who was bullied at school by a Cuthbert, but it doesn't seem very likely somehow, does it? Some names are posh, some are as common as muck, and some are a bit wimpy. Sad, but true. Which brings me to Keiths... If someone asks you to name a famous Keith, what would you say? Chegwin? Floyd? Penelope? Harris of Orville shame? Vaz? Or that Tory who applied for BT shares in umpteen different names? I've only ever met one Keith, I whupped him in a uni snooker tournament. He seemed like a sad nerdy sort of lad. (I felt a bit sorry for him, I think his pals must have put his name down for a laugh.) Ah, but what's in a name? A turd by any other name would smell as... erm, shitty. Smell is a powerful aide mémoire, Proust understood that - but then his name was Marcel, not Keith. And you see, it's the smell of a shrub in late June that sets Stephen, the narrator of Spies, off down memory lane as he revisits the cul-de-sac where he lived as a child during the war. (Yes, sorry, it's another book set during the war. Just like Ian McEwan's Atonement, Rachel Seiffert's Dark Room and Mick Jackson's Five Boys, to name but three from the past year. Of these, Spies is the one I would recommend, but when are writers going to move on for goodness sake?) Stephen recalls events he was too naïve to understand at the time, revolving around the family of his friend Keith. Keith is the snotty posh boy of the neighbourhood whom no-one apart from Stephen likes. Together they spy on the comings and goings in their cul-de-sac from a
hidey-hole hacked from the overgrown garden of a bombed out house - trying to spy spies. One day, as they follow Keith's mother, she seems to vanish... Keith's mum's furtive behaviour proves that there is Something Going On. This being a wistful, looking-back-trying-to-put-the-pieces-back-together kind of novel, you just know that the boys' privet investigations, and interference into Keith's family secrets, will have tragic consequences... At first I thought Spies was going to be just another one of those wartime boyhood stories. I had that oh-no-not-another-one-I've-heard-it-all-before feeling. Well, to a large extent it is, and it does seem predictable, but that's what the author wants you to think. He dangles the obvious in front of your eyes, so that, as with the film The Sixth Sense, you don't guess what's really going on. A subtle twist which, with hindsight connects all the dots, and is both satisfying and believable (unlike Amsterdam, Jill!) I know you're probably as fed up with books set during the war as I am, but Michael Frayn is such a good writer, and after all, Spies is only a waffer thin book... I'm sure you can find room for it, can't you? Update 19th August: Not surprisingly, "Spies" is on the long-list for the Man Booker Prize 2002, and I'm sure it has a good chance of reaching the short-list. But can such a waffer-thin book win? Probably not. ¶ Hardback: £14.99 ¶ ISBN: 0571212867 ¶ pp 213 ¶ ¶ Paperback: £7.99 ¶ ISBN: 0571212964 ¶ pp ``` ¶ 3 March 2003 ¶ ____________________________________________________________ ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
In the quiet cul-de-sac where Keith and Stephen live there is very little evidence of the Second World War. But the two friends suspect that the inhabitants of the Close are not what they seem. As Keith authoritatively informs the trusting Stephen, the whole district is riddled with secret passages and underground laboratories - hideaways for any number of murderers, unsung war heroes and secret agents. Then one day Keith announces an even more disconcerting discovery: the Germans have infiltrated his own family.