Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Spies (Michael Frayn)

Spies, by Michael Frayn

Despite its foibles, my usual hotel in London does at least have a lounge downstairs with free internet access, a printer, and as much tea as you can make and drink. The added bonus is that the lounge is full of books that guests can borrow for the duration of their stay. (A bit like some public libraries, they stamp their name all over the side of the book to make sure you’re shamed into returning them!)

I bet the hotel picks up the books cheap; maybe the manager sends someone across the road to raid the oddment bin in the Waterstones bookshop opposite the hotel! Very few of the free library are best sellers, or books that I’ve previously head off. But over the last couple of stays, I decided to give Spies by Michael Frayn a go.

Stephen Wheatley has returned to his childhood cul-de-sac. The book documents his recollections of life during a summer in wartime London. Stephen teams up with neighbour Keith to hide in the hedge of a nearby house and spy on Keith’s family, in particular his mother.

I found it quite an irritating book. A much trailed crucial six words that one character uttered takes two whole two chapters to be revealed, when I’d half expected only to find out on the last page. And when it is revealed, it’s a complete anticlimax since the blurb on the book’s dust jacket uses sixty words to tell the same message!

While the book’s entry on Wikipedia mentions that it is currently being studied by some A-Level boards in the UK, and develops themes of

“ambiguity/uncertainy, duality and conflict, gardens, privet, ...”

not much of that jumped out at me as I read it. In fact, I just wanted to get to the end (as I don’t like giving up on books half way through).

Dysfunction is all around, and the children’s suspicions become ever more elaborate as the web of confusion grows and they continue their midnight forays up The Lanes, through the tunnel and past the dogs. The reader perseveres to find out the real relationships between the characters? Is there really a German presence in the area?

The wartime tale eventually resolves, with a clever twist or two. Yet the effort (and patience) expended to reach the end of the last chapter nearly seemed too great a price to ask the reader to pay.

Michael Frayn may have written nine novels, one of which (Headlong) was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999, but if Spies is typical of his printed output, I think I’d prefer to sample how he directs his story-telling talent when writing plays (thirteen of them) rather than chance another of his novels. On stage, his plot twists and character relationships might come to the fore, and his unengaging prose would have long ago been edited out.


Anonymous said...

Ha, I think we're destined never to agree on books, because this was one of my favourite reads of whatever-year-it-was-I-read-it.

(Checking, I can't see when it was I read it, but my thoughts along with those of others are here.)

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

:) I think I must be a lost cause when it comes to proper literature ... despite having a more arty taste in cinema.

Maybe rather than a Belfast flickr meetup, we should have an East Belfast book meet in Ballyhackamore library some Saturday morning!

Anonymous said...

me too Alan - I'm an occasional lurker, and my heart sank reading your critique as I ADORED this book............k

Elizabeth Ann said...

I'm one of those people doing this for A-Level English Lit :D lol
I thought the book was OK, but th ending was very dissapointing, and I sort of knew his secret ever since the first chapter and 'Liguster', simply because I knew that was German.
Interesting read, though, and my class is going to see it on stage~ I'm curious as to how they'll do that though...