One for the 'why did I wait so long to read this' category. As a matter of fact reading from my own stacks is meant to find these little gems hiding out in plain sight (the first of what I hope will be many this year). Books I was so excited about buying and owning and (most importantly) reading, but that I never seemed to get around to. Georgina Harding's The Spy Game has been waiting patiently for me since 2009 when I had to have it. I wanted it so badly that I bought it in hardcover. But books don't have expiration dates thankfully and some age just fine and in many cases are even more appreciated by having been read at just the right time. I suspect anytime is the right time for one of Georgina Harding's books.
She's quite an eloquent writer and a very good storyteller. The Spy Game is about spies but at the same time, it really isn't. It's a spy story for readers who don't read spy stories. This is a book about memory, about the stories we tell ourselves, about how we view the world and make our way through it and most importantly, for me anyway, this is a story about identity, about how we see ourselves and those we love. If you are looking for an adrenaline rush of a story, edge-of-your-seat, cloak and dagger stuff, you might want to save this one for another time. It moves along at a stately pace, just right really, for the story it tells. It's introspective and thoughtful. And while the spies might only be perceived through the eyes of two children, it has a most definite sense of atmosphere. Oh, and if you want a neat tidy ending, with everything concrete and pat and dry, well, this might not quite satisfy your desires. Sometimes it isn't the answers at the end, rather it's the journey we take to get there. And sometimes those answers that we find, however incomplete, are enough.
"I shall always associate my other with fog. Once she went up to London in one of the last pea-soupers, I cannot have been more than six then, and came back on the train late. She drove home and came in beneath the bright overhead light in the hall and talked about it, and when she took off her silk headscarf I thought that I saw a remnant of the fog shaken off it, a dull spray that fell away off the gleam of the silk. I saw it like a horror."
"It was there, I told her. The smog. She had brought it home."
"My mother looked in the hall mirror as if to check, smiled a dazzling smile into the glass and shaped up her hair where it had been flattened by the scarf."
"'All gone now'."
It was on just such a foggy day a few years later that Anna's mother dies in a road accident. If only she had known what was coming Anna might have done things differently. She might have done something solitary, given the day the weight it deserved. But she didn't know. Not really. There was something lurking beneath the surface, something unsaid, a falseness of smiles, when her friend's mother tells Anna that her parents won't be back until late and Anna is to stay the night. Is it the lack of any real closure that prompts Anna and her brother Peter to begin imagining a life for their mother? A life and a death or some other ending for her in any case.
It's 1961. Plastered all over the news is the story of a very ordinary couple, the Krogers, who were living lives that were lies. Nothing about them was real. This was a time when spies were real, as real as the Cold War and it wasn't so unusual to read about them in their infinite variations. But the Krogers were something special. So seemingly normal, they would disappear from one place and turn up in another in a very different guise. But they were caught and their secrets revealed, offering all sorts of inspiration for those looking for some other answer to an abrupt and unexpected death.
After the death of Anna and Peter's mother, their father takes them on a vacation to the seaside. And when they return, "something had been erased from the house, and so completely that I did not at first see that it was the presence of my mother", Anna recalls. She was gone and you had to make an effort to remember where she had been.
"They had rubbed her out."
And so it is in this atmosphere of loss and emptiness and grief that Anna and Peter begin reconstructing a life for their mother. What really did they even know about her? What do children ever really know about their parent's lives. They know even less, however. Where she came from, who she really was. Their father met her in Berlin just after the war. They married and returned to England. There is no other family and something almost clandestine about their parent's history. Even their mother's birthplace no longer exists. Once a part of Germany, the city has been reabsorbed back into Russia with every reference that it once had long gone. But how easy it would have been for her to have walked out of their lives and returned to this secret world. Crossing a bridge to the other side, and who would be any the wiser?
The spy game becomes their obsession, particularly Peter's but when things become too intense, Anna backs off. It is only later in life when both have moved on that Anna decides to go looking for real answers. The story moves back and forth in time. It's almost like piecing together a puzzle where the lid of the box has disappeared and you're not sure what the final picture is meant to be. Maybe in the end it doesn't matter.
This is a beautifully told story, just what I would expect from the woman who wrote The Solitude of Thomas Cave, equally as atmospheric and filled with characters grappling with inner demons and trying to find answers and explanations. I think it will soon be time to turn my attention to her Orange Prize longlisted Painter of Silence. This was the perfect way to ease myself into my season of spies.