Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
on 7 June 2015
Set mostly during the Second World War, Michael Frayn's 'Spies' centres on schoolboy Stephen Wheatley, who lives with his mother, father and older brother in the Close, a quiet cul-de-sac, where most of the houses sit in their tidy front gardens, behind neatly trimmed hedges. Stephen's family, we soon learn, is not considered entirely 'acceptable' to the more affluent and respectable residents of the Close, and Stephen, with his scruffy school uniform and old tennis shoes, is surprised when Keith Hayward, with his smart private school uniform and polished tan sandals, seems keen for Stephen to be his friend. During the summer holidays, Stephen and Keith play together at Keith's immaculate home, watched over by Keith's elegant and attractive mother who, freed from housework by her cleaning lady, spends her days reading books, resting in her room and visiting her younger sister who lives a few doors down the street. However, although Stephen may be in awe of Mr and Mrs Hayward, often wondering why they allow Keith to be friendly with him, deep down he instinctively knows that the reason Keith's parents tolerate him is because Keith is an only child who doesn't make friends easily - and he also knows that the reason Keith wants Stephen as a friend is because he is happy to let Keith take the lead in all their games together and never challenges him. And this arrangement works well, until the day that Keith makes the shocking announcement that the Germans have infiltrated his family and his mother is actually a German agent, and Stephen makes the decision to help Keith to spy on his mother's movements in and around the Close. At first, their surveillance of Mrs Hayward is exciting and great fun, but when the boys, and Stephen in particular, stumble across things they do not understand, things gradually begin to spiral out of control.
This is a tenderly written and mostly leisurely-paced story (although it does have its more exciting moments) but it's also a deftly controlled and quietly compelling one. Richly evocative of childhood days, but not overly-sentimental, this part coming-of-age story and part mystery story is warm, funny and, in places, rather poignant to read. I picked this novel up from the bookshelf of an elderly male relative who thoroughly enjoyed it and recommended it wholeheartedly - I wasn't sure (his brief synopsis made it sound a bit 'Boys' Own') but I took it away with me to be polite and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. Recommended.