Spies, by Michael Frayn

Stephen Wheatley, by now an old man, returns to the street where he lived in during the war, and remembers a strange episode that all began when his friend uttered the words "My mother is a German Spy".

Another recommendation from A Good Read. I'm not sure I liked it as much as I had been expecting, because they all were pretty keen on it in the radio programme. What it was very good at was conjuring up the feeling of what it's like to be a child in an adult world, where many things don't make sense, and where it sometimes can be hard to distinguish between make-believe and reality. Also how there are innocuous situations, words or smells which you come across when you're young that seem to retain power all through the rest of your life.

Stephen and his friend Keith set out to spy on Keith's mum, and it becomes clear that regardless of whether she's a German spy, something strange is going on, but it's very hard to work out what: although it's the older version of Stephen who narrates the story, he doesn't provide any explanation for events: you're in the head of the younger Stephen, who's an unreliable narrator because he is only speaking from a child's perspective. It's a bit reminiscent of The Go Between: you sense that there are major things going on in the adult world although Stephen is blind to them - or at least completely misreading them.

I would have liked it more had it been possible to make sense of what must be happening even as Stephen was puzzled. And I supposed that I ought to have been able to do this, so ended up rewinding and replaying bits quite a few times because I thought I must have missed some vital clue. But although you could do this a bit, the main explanation had to be provided at the end of the book as the older Stephen filled in detail on what had happened before and after the summer in question.

I'm not sure I found Martin Jarvis the ideal reader: much of the book is narrated by Stephen as a 10(?) year-old boy, and so much of it felt very like the William stories (complete with objectionable girl muscling in on the games being played by the boys) - I kept waiting for the humour, and it so the rather more serious tone of the book felt a bit jarring.

I did like it, and would read more by Frayn, but it wasn't as great as I'd hoped.

Completed : 10-May-2013 (audiobook, read by Martin Jarvis)

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