‘Spies’ opens with the narrator moving back to his childhood to uncover/recover a momentous experience from his past. This is symbolised by a privet hedge, the smell of which works like Proust’s madeline to conjure up the past. The reason the smell is so powerful is because his childhood hideaway was actually within a privet hedge, a private burrow where he could hide from and observe the world. I cannot think of a better metaphor for the book itself. From pretty much the first page you know you’re in safe hands and once the action moves to a dingy English village set in World War two the sense of good, traditional escapism is palpable.
The book has a lot of charm, (best captured by the sign hung up outside the protagonist’s secret lair and labelling it as ‘privet’), but it never becomes too cute. As an example of Frayn’s light satirical touch, for the two young boys in the book it is a unquestioned truth that a mysterious house ‘was occupied by the Juice, a sinister organisation apparently behind all kinds of plots and swindles.’ As the novel progresses, the trauma of World War two is shown to impact every level of their lives; when one ‘discovers’ that his mother is a German spy their games become all-consuming, with an added tinge of guilt as the protagonist struggles with the difference between make-believe excitement and an adult world of guilt and evil.
If you’ve read ‘The Sense of an Ending’ or ‘The Remains of the Day’, you’ll be used to the kind of unreliable narrator who describes his younger self as ‘entirely monochrome, and he’s monochrome because this is how I recognise him now, from the old black-and-white snaps I have at home‘. The kind of narrator who wonders ‘were there two different policemen, one earlier and one later, who have got run together in my memory?‘ I can’t say that this reads as entirely fresh, but it’s done very well and is entirely fitting with the subject matter. After all, it can be hard to know who’s on who’s side, who’s spying on whom, when there is such conflict between nations, within households, even within the mind of one lonely boy.
The book is beautifully constructed, moving from the excitement of spy-games to the actual impact that lies and concealment have on a family and then back around again via the dull routine that makes up intelligence work. You may find yourself one step ahead of the child protagonist, but I was never so smart that the surprises seemed stale by the time they were revealed. ‘Spies’ delivers everything you would want from a British WWII coming of age story; I mean it as the highest compliment when I class this book as a good old-fashioned read.