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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Michael Frayn

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To purchase Spies

Title: Spies
Author: Michael Frayn
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 261 pages
Availability: Spies - US
Spies - UK
Spies - Canada
Spies - India
Espions - France
Das Spionagespiel - Deutschland
Juego de espías - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : ultimately very satisfying, but much of the presentation is exasperating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 14/2/2004 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Guardian . 9/2/2002 Peter Bradshaw
The Independent A 16/2/2002 Paul Bailey
London Rev. of Books . 21/2/2002 Christopher Tayler
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 24/3/2004 Thomas David
The New Criterion . 5/2002 Max Watman
New Statesman A- 4/2/2002 Hugo Barnacle
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/6/2002 John Lanchester
The NY Times . 9/4/2002 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/4/2002 Jennifer Schuessler
The New Yorker . 1/4/2002 John Updike
The Observer . 10/2/2002 Adam Mars-Jones
The Spectator . 26/1/2002 Jane Gardam
Sunday Telegraph A- 27/1/2002 Caroline Moore
The Times A 23/1/2002 Robert Nye
TLS . 1/2/2002 Jonathan Keates
USA Today A 16/4/2002 R.A. Papinchak
Die Zeit . 12/2/2004 Ulrich Greiner

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most largely very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Frayns Spionagespiel ist Krimi, Kriegsgeschichte und Entwicklungsroman in einem. Es ist auch eine Reflexion über das, was wir über andere zu wissen meinen und woher." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The plot is like an aircraft (...) that spends a puzzlingly long time taxiing along the runway before it finally gets airborne. Even then, it is only really in the final 50 pages that Frayn pulls back the joystick, and with a great whoosh we are up for some very showy loop-the-loops and victory rolls. (...) Spies is not as sophisticated and ambitious as Frayn's last novel, Headlong, but it is never less than witty, ingenious, and a pleasure to read." - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

  • "Spies is as much a work of suspense as it is of saddened reflection. Frayn is a master of the casual surprise, and the surprises here all ring true. (...) The tone is anguished and humorous by turns. It could be argued that there are almost too many revelations in the final pages, but otherwise 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." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "The unnecessary and empty suspense canít jibe with Fraynís insistence that the book be cast as a recollection. The same is true for the willful naïveté of the child narrator. If we are not to benefit from the older manís perspective until the last dozen or so pages, why introduce him at the start ? (...) For all the attempts, Spies never approaches the gravitas of Copenhagen or the academic suspense of Headlong. (Despite intentions, this is to its credit.)" - Max Watman, New Criterion

  • "Books read in adulthood almost never seize and enwrap your imagination like the books you read as a child, but here is one that might do the trick. (...) It recycles some familiar themes and suffers from a major drawback in the area of plausibility; all the same, it works like a charm. (...) What carries the day is the sense of adult drama off-stage, the carefully chosen period detail" - Hugo Barnacle, New Statesman

  • "It is a study of what we think we know and what is real, and also of the difference between what we really know and what we are prepared to admit. It is a dark book, and a sad one" - John Lanchester, The New York Review. of Books

  • "Like Copenhagen, Spies is a backward-looking meditation on an ambiguous encounter, half-remembered, half-imagined, that begins in friendship and spirals out into a galaxy of questions of loyalty, guilt and complicity, the unknowability of others and the strange dark matter at the fringes of the self." - Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Aside from the understated tact and ingenuity of its mystery plot, Frayn's novel excels in its rendering of the power of early impressions" - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "The key to the book's success is Frayn's decision to respect young Stephen's point of view without staking everything on recreating it. (...) Spies works as a mystery, as a war story and as a coming-of-age narrative. The only thing it can't quite be, despite its author's intellectual background, is a work of philosophy. There are some slightly strained passages, ponderings with a whiff of the seminar, rather too methodical for the context" - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "This is such a sensuous book that at times, while never trying to be poetic or melodic, it comes near to painting or music. (...) The distinction of this novel is in evocation of lost landscape.(...) As always, Frayn has made a usual subject entirely his own." - Jane Gardam, The Spectator

  • "(T)he framework does mar the ending of the book, when the wrapping-up of Stephen's intervening years is psychologically perfunctory. But all the rest of Spies actually improves upon re-reading, which is the true test of depth. It is cerebral and sensuous; extremely funny and yet deeply serious about the peculiar mixture of curiosity and profound incuriousness that characterises children -- and, Frayn suggests, adults too." - Caroline Moore, Sunday Telegraph

  • "It is an odd, original, haunting little tale in which the teller is the really interesting thing. (...) But the book's real merit lies in the way Stephen comes to understand the truth behind the mysteries of his world by beginning to understand something about the difference between men and women. This is achieved entirely without crudity. (...) (A) modest but memorable book." - Robert Nye, The Times

  • "Spies draws much of its force from the narrative's subtly inverted echoes of other novels." - Jonathan Keates, Times Literary Supplement

  • "It is equal parts compelling war story, painful love story and unraveling mystery." - Robert Allen Papinchak, USA Today

  • "Für deutsche Leser hält dieser bewundernswerte Roman eine unangenehme Pointe bereit. Sie hat zu tun mit Hitlers Krieg gegen England und mit der Verfolgung der Juden. (...) Man wird wider Willen der Tatsache gewahr, dass selbst in diesem englischen Kammerspiel über Unordnung und frühes Leid die deutsche Vergangenheit nicht vergeht." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       When one has read Spies in its entirety it feels like a success. One closes the book impressed by how Frayn has tied everything together, and one is more than satisfied with the explanations he offers. The closing section, in which everything (indeed, more than one expects) is revealed, is remarkable. And yet it is hard to be truly enthusiastic about the book.
       The problem is largely one of perspective. The book is narrated by Stephen Wheatley, now an old man, who reminisces about events that happened in his childhood, during World War II. At the beginning of the book he feels the need to stroll down "Memory Lane" once again -- to "the last house before you go round the bend and it turns into Amnesia Avenue" as he tells his children. And so he sets off for London, to revisit the Close where he grew up and where something happened .....
       Frayn tries his best to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and lost youth and innocence and present an old man seeking to recapture time past, but he doesn't succeed. There are smells and sounds and words, and it's all enough -- too much ! too much ! -- to make a reader gag. Worse yet, first-person narrator Stephen switches largely to the third person in describing his younger self and his adventures -- perhaps appropriate, given that the young boy is an entirely different person from what the old man has become, but it's all done in a way that is terribly annoying.
       There are hints of the ultimate truths right from the beginning in these looks back:

Stephen Wheatley ... Or just plain Stephen ... On his school reports S.J.Wheatley, in the classroom or the playground just plain Wheatley. Strange names. None of them seem quite to fit him as I watch him now.
       And yet this passage (like so many) already contains most of the novel's faults, from the ridiculous point of view ("as I watch him now") to the betrayal of the reader that comes with the withholding of the information that old man Stephen has as he looks back here but won't reveal until he's played out the whole long memory. "None of them seem quite to fit" -- and old man Stephen knows exactly why but he won't say until the bitter end.
       Frayn withholds information presumably to allow Stephen to relive the whole process of obtaining (guilty) knowledge, of losing innocence; unfortunately he goes about it in a far too heavy-handed way. And this approach also leads to the novel's second big problem: the young Stephen is presented as such a complete innocent and so inarticulate that he comes to seem quite the dolt, and his inability (or unwillingness) to speak when it is called for (leading to disaster) is immensely frustrating. Frayn comes close to capturing childish incomprehension when faced with an adult world (there are reasons why a child can't speak or act in certain circumstances, overwhelmed by or not understanding a situation), but Stephen's inaction (and what few actions he does take) border on the ridiculous -- and are incredibly exasperating.
       What is young Stephen's story about ? Well, the time is World War II, and Stephen and his friend Keith become convinced that Keith's mother is a German spy. They follow her and spy on her and in the process stumble on -- or at least near -- a very different secret. Childish minds spin strange things out of the limited evidence they find, and adults' half-explanations and evasions compound their (and other) errors. It all ends in absolute disaster.
       Stephen all along only sees and understands bits of a much larger picture, and so the reader is left in the dark about much as well. The mystery isn't too big a mystery, only the exact details remain vague until the end, but Stephen and Keith manage to make more of a mess of things as they go along. The truth and childish imagination are a bad mix. As Keith's father tells young Stephen:
"People make awful asses of themselves with let's pretend, you see, old chap. Get themselves in no end of a muddle."
       (A typical nice touch in that scene: Frayn has the adult call the boy "old chap" -- and it is indeed the old chap Stephen has become that is also addressed by these words.)
       Stephen, in particular, tries to right things, only to cause even greater wrongs. What happens in the end -- the magnitude of it all, the truth behind everything -- is much larger than anticipated (and in this way Frayn redeems himself), but some of the childish spying and piecing together of the puzzle along the way is tiresome.
       But there are also some fine bits all along: the two boys' fathers, the first hints of sex (including the mystery of the "x" Keith's mother marks monthly in her diary), and especially the relationships among the children. Class differences and childish betrayal, loyalty, and affection are all very well handled, and the most successful character is a neighbourhood girl, Barbara Berrill, herself a little spy who helps confuse matters (and Stephen) further.
       The final explanations are more than expected, and shed a new light on much that came before (from simple details like Stephen's fathers stance on bullies) -- but much of that was lost in Frayn's awkward narrative perspective. And ultimately the reader wonders why certain information was withheld until the bitter end.
       Old man Stephen doesn't quite come to terms with his past, and that's how the whole book feels: a good attempt, just slightly off, the wrong tack taken. Worthwhile, but not entirely satisfying.

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Spies: Reviews: Michael Frayn: Other books by Michael Frayn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See the index of Drama at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Michael Frayn was born in 1933. He is best known as a playwright. He has also written several acclaimed novels.

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