Can memory ever be reliable? Does the adult self have anything in common with the childhood self? How much impact can children's games have on the affairs of adults? Stephen Wheatley, protagonist of Michael Frayn's Spies, sets out to answer these questions—for the novel, and for himself.
When the scent of an ordinary flowering shrub unearths a host of buried memories, Stephen, now a man with grown children, returns to his boyhood home in suburban London. He is attempting to piece together what happened one dark summer when World War II was raging, and the world around him was about to be turned upside-down—whether he was aware of it or not. At this point, he turns narration over to his childhood self, "the one with the stick-out ears and the too-short gray flannel school shirt hanging out of the too-long gray flannel school shorts," a person he views as so far removed from his current state that he will not refer to the boy in the first person. Stephen and his best friend, Keith Hayward, contribute to the war effort by proposing terrible goings-on in their neighborhood that need investigating: murderers, smugglers, and secret societies. One day, Keith announces that his mother is a German spy, and a new game begins.
One of the greatest devices in Spies is Frayn's decision not to filter Stephen's childhood perceptions through the wisdom of adult experience. Like a detective story, readers discover 'clues' alongside Keith and Stephen with only as much understanding as they have, allowing us the guilty pleasure of deciphering the mysteries long before they realize they are mysteries. All the while, we wonder: is there really anything going on, or is it simply the imaginings of two boys trying to bring color to their lives? The unfiltered voice has its greatest, most entertaining effect in the game's early stages, when the boys follow Mrs. Hayward for proof of her treachery. They read her address book:
Ashtons (cleaners), ABC Stationers...Mr. and Mrs. James Butterworth, Marjorie Beer, Bishop (window cleaner). Who are Mr. and Mrs. Butterworth and Marjorie Beer? They may be code names, of course....Keith examines each of the entries through the magnifying glass and transcribes a few of them into the logbook.
As the ordinary details of daily life become signs of secret assignations and traitorous assignments, the reader gets a laugh at Stephen's expense, which, far from being mean-spirited, is rather bittersweet as we consider the lost innocence of childhood. The story progresses; the atmosphere surrounding Keith and Stephen's game becomes more complicated and sinister, but the reader is still every bit as much in the dark as the narrator, heightening the suspense and sense of impending doom. And the question remains of whether this is 'doom' as understood by a pair of schoolboys or 'doom' in a more conventional sense. Moreover, without the adult Stephen to intercede, our empathy for the child Stephen increases; logically, we know that he has no control over the seemingly inevitable chain of events around him, but he believes he does, and without adult Stephen to grant him absolution, we begin to feel his guilt along with him.
As important as the adult story is to the novel's plot, it is clearly secondary to the story of Keith and Stephen. In one of Stephen's darkest moments, he reflects:
I'd betrayed Keith. I've let a stranger into our special place....I've failed in my surveillance duties. And I've allowed myself to listen to unworthy insinuations that his mother's getting bacon and butter on the black market, that she's involved in a surreptitious and shameful traffic with bosoms and boyfriends. I've allowed myself to entertain a momentary suspicion that she's not a German spy at all.
By the time the climax of the adult story arrives, the novel's real tragedy has already taken place in the betrayals and heartbreaks of two boys caught in a game to which they should never have been exposed.
The climax of the adults' story is, incidentally, the one place where Stephen's unfiltered perspective fails Frayn; what occurs beside that railroad track is too fast, too complicated, too messy, and too far outside anything Stephen has a frame of reference for to be easily comprehensible to even the most alert of readers.
One of the central tenets of Spies, as with much of Frayn's work, is that memory is an inherently unreliable thing. The order of events, the reassuring solidity of causality, fades away as the adult Stephen struggles to remember whether this happening led to that, that to this, or whether it was all disparate and completely unconnected. Nevertheless, Frayn insists that sense memory is flawless, and the riot of scents, sounds, and textures that infuse the novel make it an absolute sensory delight.
After the heady sensuality of Spies' main action, the last chapter is somewhat disappointing. While the information presented is interesting and useful in interpreting what has come before, Frayn's dispassionate adult narrator simply tells us too many of the facts. Still, the very last paragraphs recall the senses and sensations that enthralled throughout, reminding us why Spies is a novel we will allow ourselves to be drawn into, time and again, if only to test how true our own memory remains.
- Eli Weintraub