I’m currently reading the set texts (and one or two recommended ones) from my daughter’s A level English Literature course to help her prepare for the exams (it’s always easier to discuss themes and arguments with someone who has actually read the books after all). I’m glad I did because I’ve discovered Michael Frayn as a result.
‘Spies’ is an excellent choice of text to use for A level study. It is short, clear, light and easy to read while not being childish or avoiding uncomfortable issues such as growing childhood sexual awareness and arousal. It has enough depth to keep the older teenager engaged while avoiding dragging the reader through interminable introspective ramblings. The book doesn’t try to be clever – and so ends up being rather good.
The story, set in WWII Britain deals with two boys – the narrator Stephen and his friend Keith – growing up in a close neighbourhood where everyone knows everybody else’s business. One day Keith announces a ‘discovery’ which sets in motion a series of events which lead to tragedy.
The book is engaging and, apart from the occasionally annoying interjection from the narrator fifty years on retracing his childhood haunts, it flows easily almost like continuous thought. Frayn cleverly keeps the reader guessing what the true mystery is while drawing us deeper into the characters and especially into Stephen’s world.
Nevertheless, the book isn’t a classic – at least not in the league of novels such as ‘Lord of the Flies’. It is well crafted, honed to perfection by an author experienced in journalistic precision, and ‘does the job’ but the story isn’t breathtaking: it misses the ‘wow’ factor somehow. If I could then, I’d give it 3.5 rather than 3 out of 5 stars which is just on the measly side. 4 stars however, is far too generous.
Many an adult will enjoy this book simply for the memories of our own childhood it will evoke. For intelligent teenagers though it is ideal – just enough to sink the baby teeth of literary analysis into without being unpalatable, disappointing or simply too complex to chew. In this, Michael Frayn is to be congratulated.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com