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Spies Paperback – 20 Jan 2003


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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; New edition edition (20 Jan. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571212964
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571212965
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 205,448 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon Review

In Michael Frayn's novel Spies an old man returns to the scene of his seemingly ordinary suburban childhood. Stephen Wheatley is unsure of what he is seeking but, as he walks once-familiar streets he hasn't seen in 50 years, he unfolds a story of childish games colliding cruelly with adult realities. It is wartime and Stephen's friend Keith makes the momentous announcement that his mother is a German spy. The two boys begin to spy on the supposed spy, following her on her trips to the shops and to the post, and reading her diary. Keith's mother does have secrets to conceal but they are not the ones the boys suspect. Frayn skilfully manipulates his plot so that the reader's growing awareness of the truth remains just a few steps beyond Stephen's dawning realisation that he is trespassing on painful and dangerous territory. The only false notes occur in the final chapter when the central revelation (already cleverly signposted) is too swiftly followed by further disclosures about Stephen and his family that seem somehow unnecessary and make the denouement less satisfyingly conclusive. This is a much sparer and less expansive book than Headlong, Frayn's Booker Prize-shortlisted 1999 novel, more understated in its wit, but it is, in many ways, more compelling.--Nick Rennison --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

''Spies' is a cleverly conceived and intricately executed novel in which different layers of irony are nested like Russian dolls.' -- London Review of Books

''Spies' is too good for the Booker Prize - can there be higher praise?' -- Daily Express

'Beautifully accomplished, richly nostalgic novel about supposed Second World War espionage seen through the eyes of a young boy.' -- Sunday Times

'Frayn has never written more seductively and surely than in this book.' -- Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

'In a recent interview, Frayn, a former journalist, said it was very difficult to explain what a story is. 'Spies' is a near-perfect exemplar.' -- Glasgow Herald

'This is a deeply satisfying account of the everyday torments and confusions experienced by a not especially bright boy at a time of international madness. Frayn has written nothing better.' -- Independent

'This is a lovingly conceived, handsomely detailed novel . . . never less than witty, ingenious and a pleasure to read.' -- Guardian

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

56 of 63 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 3 Feb. 2002
Format: Hardcover
I have been comprehensively bowled over by Spies. I have never seen the dilemmas, confusions, excitements, insights, and incomprehensions of childhood better, more truthfully, done; and its balance of comedy and anguish - indeed the blend of comedy and anguish - is handled with exceptional delicacy. The fun is real fun, but it isn't allowed to cheapen or lessen Stephen's anxieties, fears, sense of his own unworthiness. (As an old man, he may have lost two of those, but not the third, I think.) All that would be enough to make this an exceptionally fine and unusual novel.
But Frayn also presents an adult story, imperceptibly humming in the background almost at the start, then thrumming more and more audibly as he brings it to the fore. When finally it declares itself openly, fortissimo and on centre-stage, one realizes that it has (and how it has) been at the centre of the story from the outset, though always - even at the climax - we get it through the consciousness of the boy.
The presentation of the adult story is an astonishing technical feat. Frayn shows superlative skill in the way he paces it - not just the rate at which the story comes forward, but the steps it takes to get there: the thriller-like excitement as it is gradually revealed, the discipline with which the revelation comes entirely through the experience of the boy Stephen, with nothing leaking around the edges, the growing revelation (starting long before we know what the story really is) of its sadness. It is an astonishing achievement.
The central adult story is heart-breaking. One is also sad for others, including the boy Keith and his poor limited frightened frightening father.
Frayn is never sentimental.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Samuel Cooke on 20 Feb. 2006
Format: Hardcover
“Spies” is an incredibly mysterious and thought-provoking piece, written in the increasingly popular ‘unreliable narrator’ style. Using war-time Britain as a subtle backdrop and plot catalyst, Frayn explores the patchy, incoherent childhood memories of an old man stopping to discover the truth behind a major turning point in his life. Touching on many aspects of childhood life, we are shown only the memories that are given to us, whist occasionally being teased by tiny clues as to the story’s eventual conclusion. By the means of foreshadowing, tension and a complicated narrating technique, the reader always feels one step ahead of the author, and yet – at the same time – acutely aware that you are totally at Frayn’s mercy.
For me there was only one major problem, and this was the story’s length, which leaves the reader tired and frustrated, let alone desperate for an increase in tempo. This is mercifully supplied, and one is suddenly conscious of the spiraling plot twists and thrilling peaks that eventually lead to a rich and emotive resolution.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 26 Aug. 2003
Format: Paperback
Some reviews have already mentioned the book's common ground with LP Hartley's "The Go-Between". As a child's-eye view of adult behaviour, this novel also has plenty of acute insights into childhood, and a similarly bittersweet mood of nostagia for the lost past.
Limited in scope to the young Stephen's surburban street and its inhabitants, the novel is probably at its best in its excellent observations of how children think and talk. Stephen's relationships with his friends and neighbours are very believable, often amusing, and at times very poignant when he is at his most frightened and powerless in the face of incomprehensible adult behaviour. But despite feeling sympathy for Stephen I never felt totally involved in his story. The plot was neatly worked out but I didn't find it emotionally compelling. The family revelations are a good example - they're undoubtedly clever and neat, but perhaps a bit too clever and neat judging by the feelings of many reviewers here.
Ian McEwan's "Atonement" has similar preoccupations with childish perception, regret and culpability - but the difference was that "Atonement" made me cry. "Spies" is an acute intellectual study of wartime society and human relationships, but despite the subject matter it never quite threatened a tear.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Keith M TOP 500 REVIEWER on 18 Jun. 2013
Format: Paperback
This 2002 short (230 page) novel by playwright and author Michael Frayn is a beautifully written tale (with fable-like qualities) of youthful fantasy set during the Second World War. Frayn's protagonist, the youthfully shy and reticent Stephen Wheatley, has returned (around 50 years later) to the unnamed, quiet rural English community where a mysterious set of goings-on occurred, related in flashback and interspersed with adult Stephen's retrospective reflections.

Frayn has done a particularly skilful job in conjuring up the immature and fantastic dream-world inhabited by Stephen and best friend Keith, to whom Stephen kowtows as a result of Keith's outward personal confidence and superior social standing. Theirs is a(n imaginary) world of secret hiding places, do-or-die pacts, nefarious and supernatural phenomena, malevolent neighbours and an excruciatingly painful reluctance (or inability) to communicate with their adult parents or (worst of all) girls - and all taking place in a seemingly idyllic cul-de-sac in middle England. Frayn cleverly keeps the reader guessing as to whether there is any truth in Keith's assertion that his mother is, in fact, a German spy (and/or that the mysterious figure lurking in the undergrowth is her co-conspirator) by layering on additional potential (more innocent) explanations for the boys' fanciful imaginings.

Given the brilliant way that Frayn sets up his story I must admit to being slightly disappointed with the novel's denouement, particularly the unnecessary concluding contrivance of Stephen's own German connections. However, with a style and atmosphere that reminded me of various outstanding tales told from a child's perspective such as Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, Donna Tartt's The Little Friend and even Mary Hayley Bell's novel (and Bryan Forbes' film) Whistle Down The Wind, Spies is a compellingly evocative and nostalgic read.
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