One foggy day in 1961, a woman gets into her car and drives away from her village in Oxfordshire never to return. The following day Anna, her 8-year-old daughter, hears from a neighbour at whose house she often stays, "There's something I have to tell you, dear. You see, your father telephoned, he called us yesterday, he couldn't come back last night. He asked me to tell you something....Your mother has gone to heaven."
Later, Peter, two years her senior, asks his sister, "How do we know she's dead?"
"Because they told us".
Father takes the children to the seaside for some days, when they return, the house has been cleaned, all the woman's possessions have been cleared away, her presence has been erased so-to-speak, it is as if she's never existed. The children don't attend the funeral and only two years later their father takes them to the cemetery in Oxford to show them the tombstone with her name.
Although this death isn't the main topic of the book but only the preliminary step into the story proper, I'd like to linger on it a bit. What kind of stone age pedagogy is this, I wonder? But maybe this is insulting the Flintstones and their kind, maybe they allowed their children to mourn over the death of their mothers, to cry and wail, to touch her things, to choose something to remember her by. Anna's and Peter's father is described as highly intelligent but emotionally reticent, not as insensitive or cruel - what he is in my opinion. Am I introduced to a British character trait, is it the way British people used to behave half a century ago or do we have the idiosyncratic traits of an emotional cripple here? The book doesn't answer this.
Whatever, Father's incapacity or unwillingness to talk about Mother and the contemporaneous discovery of spies which shock the country because they led an ordinary life and weren't suspicious in the slightest way and the fact that Mother was a German war refugee from Königsberg in East Prussia, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad, who got to know and married her British husband in Berlin triggers off the spy game Peter and Anna invent. What if their mother was an undercover agent all the time? Peter is the brain and organiser, he makes Anna write a diary, to observe everything only slightly suspicious and to write it down in code.
A difference of two years is a lot during childhood, Anna is simply too young to grasp many of the things her brother already understands. The author succeeds in portraying the girl's confusion. The story is told in the first person perspective by the now middle-aged Anna. When her father dies and she sorts through the house, she decides to go on a journey following her mother's traces in reverse. First she intends to visit Berlin, then continue to Königsberg. Not surprisingly, her memories of what happened during her early childhood are vague because of the many years that have passed. What she remembers is that at the time she didn't understand much of what was going on around her because she was simply too young and no grown-up helped her. So we have a double vagueness here.
Anna leaves without having precise ideas what to do, where to go, what to look for. She travels in April, the prevailing weather conditions are rain, cold, wind. What she sees is bleak and deserted. The tone of the whole book is like this, melancholy and drabness wherever you look. I must concede that the author does this well, but I'd like to warn you, should you suffer from depression, it's not advisable to read The Spy Game, it'll pull you down even further. One critic writes "There is a slew of emotion and desperation in those spare words, and that is one of Harding's greatest talents: underneath the careful, polished prose hot springs gurgle and glower." Gurgle and glower, my back bottom! You may accuse me of being an insensitive chunk but I don't feel anything gurgling or glowering here, if I look attentively, I can detect only faint murmuring and simmering.
East of Berlin Anna looks out of the window of the train and sees a landscape which reminds her of eastern England, 'only there are lakes, and the long rectangles of arable fields are broken up by rambling stretches of forest...Every so often a group of wind turbines stands white and pure on a rise in the land". And now it comes: "So this is the place that was East Germany". Can you believe it? I grew up in East Germany and I can tell you there's more to it. Harding was a travel writer before turning to fiction, if her observations in her travel books are as shallow as here, I don't want to read them. A Polish fellow-traveller is "...a squat middle-aged man with stubby fingers and scarcely a neck, "but his face is kinder and more expressive than you would expect." What? Wouldn't I expect it because of his age, fingers or neck or because of his being a Pole?
Nostalgia tourism to the pre-war German territories which are now Polish or Russian are a well-know phenomenon in Germany. My cousin's husband was four years old when his family had to leave a small town in East Prussia. He's been there twice already and would like to go again although he's unable to find anything he remembers. He was too small to know the whole town, he can't even find the house his family lived in, there are no Germans any more he could talk to, what does he seek then? It's a feeling, an atmosphere, he can't describe it. At least he's got a personal relationship to the place, Anna has nothing besides a handful of remarks her mother made which, very likely, aren't even true. Anna is convinced that the young woman, like many refugees, shed her old identity when she left for the West and started all over again.
With this we have a topic of post-modern literature. "I am what I am, I am my own creation", as Gloria Gaynor sings. Do we have to live the life fate has meant for us? Aren't we free to have as many identities as we like? Did Anna's mother lead a double life then as her children suspected? Thrilling questions which aren't discussed and answered in a thrilling way in my opinion. By choosing a too young child without enough memories to fall back on as a grown-up the whole story is kind of bloodless to me. The novel has been compared to the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, well, each story featuring children trying to figure out the ways of grown-ups is. But there exciting things happen, here they're only imagined. In William Boyd's novel Restless a mother does lead a double life which is described in a thrilling way, here we don't have more than the possibility that she might have done so.
In Königsberg Anna muses, "it is not as if I came expecting to find out anything", so one is left wondering why she went at all. To go a step further I'd like to ask the author: why write the book at all?
Georgina Harding's "The Spy Game" is a quietly gripping read that is certainly reminiscent of William Boyd's "Restless" but it is the author's brilliant portrayal of the young Anna that really stands out and as a novel that uses for the most part a child narrator, this novel is, for me, right up there with classics such as "To Kill a Mockingbird".
The first section takes place in the 1960s and opens one autumn day when Anna's mother drives off into the fog and never returns. It's the middle of the Cold War and the very same day that Anna and her brother Peter learn of their mother's death, a major spy story breaks in news. Peter, a couple of years older than Anna and with a boy's fondness for thriller stories, refuses to accept that his mother is dead and confides in Anna that he believes that their mother was actually involved in espionage herself. Their father works for the government, their mother was a refugee from the east of Germany and the couple met in post-war Berlin: that their mother was a spy is completely obvious to Peter and, as their rather remote father prefers to seek solace among his flower beds, Peter has plenty of time to persuade Anna of the fact too. When we meet Anna again in the second half of the book she is a grown woman, fifty-something with a grown up daughter of her own. After the death of their father, Anna finally decides to head across Europe to try to find some answers to the questions that plagued her childhood and ultimately drove her brother away.
This finely written story is a stylish and haunting evocation of a very precise point of the twentieth century. It was a time when middle England was rocked by revelations that spies were living in their quiet little communities; those exposed were regarded with sheer hatred by the majority of the public and with each new revelation, anyone who was slightly different was looked upon with some suspicion. Anna's mother sticks out in their sleepy Oxfordshire village, with her glamorous appearance and her eastern European accent but it is not until her disappearance that the children ever really consider how different she was from other mothers. Peter is the driving force behind the childrens' game; he uses his status as the older sibling to compel Anna to join in. While you can't help but smile at the childrens' skewed view of the world there is at the same time a tremendous sadness behind Peter's unwavering belief that his mother was part of a Soviet spy ring.
At first Harding appears to be taking a similar path to Michael Frayn in whose novel "Spies" a young boy becomes convinced that his best friend's mother is a spy but the story subtly develops into something far deeper. At the heart of the novel is the village where the family live, and those people who live around them. The Laceys who are so good to Anna and Peter are former Japanese prisoners of war and although they don't talk about their experiences themselves, there's always a strong underlying feeling that they keep on a brave face in public. Even more poignant is Mrs Cahn, Anna's piano teacher, a Jewish refugee; stuck in this tight little community, living alone, Mrs Cahn's deterioration is plain for anyone to see but for the children who associate Mrs Cahn's exotic European-ness with that of their mother, she too becomes another justification for peter's theories.
The novel has many strengths, not least the superb portrayal of the Russian city of Kaliningrad, and to a more modest extent the descriptions of current day Berlin, in the second part of the novel. Harding does a remarkable job of capturing not only the visual aspects of the city but the feeling of other worldiness that comes with the formerly closed Russian outposts, something I experienced myself when visiting the then recently re-opened Black Sea port of Sebastopol. But so too is 1960s rural England brilliantly depicted; London and other big cities may have been swinging but life in the countryside was quite different and Harding creates a stifled environment in which children were sent away to school and secrets were steadfastly kept. It is against this muted, stiff upper lip backdrop that Peter's directness seems more shocking; that a child should be gravely affected by the death of his mother is hardly surprising but the way in which he becomes almost dangerously obsessed with his theories and brash in the way he tries to prove them sets him apart from those around him.
For the main part "The Spy Game" is an immensely satisfying and meaty read though it is let down by a shaky ending which does not satisfy the story that has preceded it and raises new questions at quite the wrong time. It is however still a very worthwhile read, a fine combination of absorbing thriller with an interesting exploration of loss.