Tuesday, December 16, 2008

the last book I read

Spies by Michael Frayn.

It was Kierkegaard who said "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.". So here we are in Bonjour Tristesse territory again, as the narrator recalls the events of a childhood summer years before with the (in hindsight) inevitable tragic consequences.

Stephen Wheatley is an elderly gent (sixty-to-seventysomething, we assume) revisiting the suburban street where he spent a significant chunk of his childhood - specifically, that chunk encompassing World War II. While wandering up and down the streets working out what's happened to his childhood haunts, Stephen reminisces about the events of his childhood.

The first thing you have to realise is that this is an elderly man recalling the events of over fifty years previously. On top of that what he's recalling are the perceptions of a child. So you have to exercise a certain amount of mistrust of what you're being told.

Anyway, back to World War II. Stephen and his best friend Keith have, as young boys do, a rich and vivid fantasy life going on whereby Mr. Gort (no, not that one) down the road is a murderer, the mysterious gyppos in the end house get up to all sorts of murky dealings under cover of darkness, that sort of thing. One day, though, Keith announces that something more interesting is happening a bit closer to home: his mother is a German spy.

So the boys start to spy on Keith's mother, and it soon becomes apparent to them (and the reader) that, well, there is something a bit odd going on - on a couple of occasions she heads out as if to do some shopping and seemingly disappears as the boys try to follow her. And what of the mysterious markings that they find in her diary, with x's marked at an irregular but approximately monthly schedule?

So maybe she is a spy? Further investigation reveals that she isn't actually disappearing, but instead nipping off down the tunnel under the railway embankment to put things in a mysterious metal box, hidden in the undergrowth. These things turn out to be mundane items like hard-boiled eggs, packets of fags, socks, and the like. One night Stephen sneaks out to the box and has an encounter with a mysterious man, the intended recipient, we assume, of the stuff in it.

And so it goes. Frayn pulls the narrative rug out from under the reader a few times, however much second guessing the reader might try to do. A few clues to the real solution to the mystery are scattered about here and there, though.

It's all quite satisfyingly worked out, and the sense of children's utter bewilderment at the actions and motivations of adults (and, indeed, vice versa) is very well portrayed. Like On Chesil Beach though, there's a blizzard of exposition at the end which seems like a slightly jarring change of pace from the rest of the book.

Also like On Chesil Beach, the Guardian have provided an ultra-condensed version for the terminally lazy. It's not a long book, though - 230-odd pages, largish print, so there's not really any excuse for not reading the real thing. Frayn's earlier novel and 1999 Booker Prize nominee Headlong is in a more blackly comic vein than Spies, but is also very good.

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