Bitter memories of the home front during WWII resurface in this muted yet moving tenth novel from popular British author Frayn (The Copenhagen Papers, 2001, etc.) and playwright (Noises Off, etc.).
In a Proustian prologue, a mysteriously sweet outdoor aroma evokes indistinct memories of its narrator Stephen Wheatley’s youth in a tightly knit suburban “close” during the war years. Returning to his home village, the now elderly Stephen “sees” a series of scenes featuring his young self and his confident, domineering best friend Keith Hayward. “He was the officers corps in our two-man army,” Stephen muses, while recalling the elaborate system of wires and tunnels the boys had constructed between their two houses, and the military games they had played in imitation of the larger conflict ongoing in Europe—culminating in acts of secrecy and surveillance prompted by Keith’s astonishing declaration that “My mother … is a German spy.” Frayn sticks close to Stephen’s timid sensibility, thrown into tormented relief by the boy’s growing suspicion that Mrs. Hayward’s frequent brief absences from home and habit of “visiting” a nearby railway tunnel are undertaken, not out of solidarity with the enemy, but in order to meet with a lover—who is perhaps a “downed” German pilot, or an “old tramp” suspected of being a sexual deviant; or in fact something much less romantic and thrilling. The story is somewhat thinly plotted, and little seems to happen—outside Stephen’s busy imagination, at least—for a distractingly long time. But Frayn holds our attention with sharp economical characterizations of the frail and beautiful Mrs. Hayward, Stephen’s annoyingly ordinary own family, and Keith’s supremely self-confident father, a misogynistic martinet who virtually radiates smiling, perfectly controlled menace. Only a curious overabundance of climactic surprise-twists vitiates the skill with which Stephen’s ordeal of subterfuge and guilt is portrayed.
A bit reminiscent of L.P. Hartley’s modern classic The Go-Between but, still, an essentially original and very affecting tale.