Frayn specifically sets Spies in a London cul-de-sac during the second World War, what Stephen calls “the Duration,” to show how the war affects every aspect of life in the Close. Immediately evident in the novel is the war’s physical effect on the provincial landscape of the town. On his return to the Close, Stephen initially makes a note of how even the sky is different from when he was a child, when it was constantly painted with searchlights and flares. War has also left a distinct mark on the land: the dirty pig bins that line the Avenue, the grimy Cottages, and the barren Barns all demonstrate the destructiveness of the War not only at the front, but also at home. The ominous sight of the bombed remnants of Miss Durrant’s house right in the middle of the Close is just one of the many presences that serve as a constant reminder to the neighborhood of the impending war threat.
All of these contribute to creating a sense of paranoia in the Close, and the plot of Spies itself feeds off that paranoia, which is specifically pointed towards the Germans, and begins with an innocent child’s intimation that his own mother could be involved in German espionage. However, paranoia is not restricted only to Keith, but is widely manifest among all the families in the Close. For example, the Haywards store their car in the garage, disassembled from its wheels, to prevent the Germans from taking it away. Neighbors also call the police to investigate anything that seems remotely suspicious, such as the “peeping Tom” that apparently visits Auntie Dee’s house. As the main enemy of Britain in World War II, the Germans become a symbol of evil for Stephen, Keith, and the rest of the people living in the Close. In fact, the novel is studded with instances of British antagonism against the Germans, which seem even more potent since they are articulated through such a young and innocent voice, that of Stephen. Any military accomplishment—by Keith’s father and Uncle Peter—is described as glorious for specifically “killing Germans.” Stephen asserts that Germans have an “evil ingenuity for which they were notorious,” and his obsession with germs partially stems from the fact that they were “presumably so called because they were as evil and insidious as Germans.” In addition, Stephen uses “Germanness” as a way to describe the identifying essence of the mysterious man that Keith’s mother is hiding.
The War also has a profound effect on the households and families of the novel. First, it sends many fathers and sons away, like the Berrills’ father, Uncle Peter, and the McAfees’ and the Averys’ sons. Thus it is telling when, in reference to the Berrill girls, “everyone says they’re running wild” after their father left for the war. The war causes disturbance in the home and introduces different pressure points that threaten the stability of the family. Although Stephen dismisses most of Barbara’s chattiness as girly gossip, her comment that “lots of ladies have boyfriends while everyone’s daddies are away” reveals the specter of infidelity that haunts the home and exemplifies the social imbalance that is created by the war. And Stephen’s brief consideration that Barbara’s gossip might be true displays another kind of paranoia—one that questions the loyalty and trust within families—that the war introduces into people’s lives.
The most prominent affair in the novel is the one between Keith’s mother and Uncle Peter, whose relations seem to reach back even before the two were married to other people (suggested by Uncle Peter’s assertion that “It was always her”). Although Spies initially seems to be about exposing an undercover German spy, a direct product of the War, it turns out that the novel is actually interested in revealing the secret and hopeless affair between two people who are deeply affected by the War in a more complicated way. Keith’s mother is the victim of an abusive relationship with her husband, Mr. Hayward, a man who is deeply self-conscious about his exclusion from the current conflict and clings to his past achievement in World War I. The bayonet that he wears on his belt acts as a medal to display his past instance of bravery, but it is also a physical object from the war that he uses to sadistically punish his wife. In this way, the War is very much a violent presence inside the home that provokes the disloyal behavior between Keith’s mother with Uncle Peter. Likewise, Uncle Peter is also directly affected by the war because he inevitably becomes an outcast after his desertion of the Air Force and is ultimately killed (from running in front of a train) by the war’s insistence on militaristic glory and honor, which he immediately loses once he leaves his assigned station. Therefore Frayn argues, especially through Keith’s mother and Uncle Peter, that wartime introduces instability into familial relationships—that war makes and breaks bonds. Keith’s suspicion of his own mother, the domineering control of Mr. Hayward over his wife, Mrs. Hayward’s secret affair with Uncle Peter, and the eventual falling out of Keith’s mother and Auntie Dee are all products of the War.
Unlike the straining network of relationships within the Haywards’ social circle, Stephen and his family have a relatively healthy family dynamic founded on love that is difficult to find anywhere else in the Close. But Stephen also occasionally references his family’s inability to fit in. He states that “In the very marrow of his bones he understands that there's something not quite right about him and his family, something that doesn't quite fit with the pigtailed Geest girls and the oil-stained Avery boys, and never will.” At the end of the story, the truth behind the Wheatleys’ peculiarity is revealed: they are not actually English, but have resettled from Germany, the very country that is at war with the British. Furthermore, they are Jewish in a time of widespread anti-Semitism. So in fact Keith’s mother is not the German spy, but Stephen declares that he and his father are. (Although they aren’t actually working on behalf of the German war effort.) Thus the Wheatleys’ secret Germanness and Jewishness sets them apart from the other families in the Close, and it contributes to the difficulty that Stephen faces throughout his life to fit in. As he begins to close the novel, the older Stephen explains that he eventually decided to return to Germany because his “life in England had somehow never really taken flight.” If for Keith and the Haywards the war introduces familial strain, for Stephen and the Wheatleys it precludes any sense of belonging, especially in a country that is very much mired in blind prejudice against Germans.
Frayn’s deliberate setting of his novel in wartime London seeks to expose the ghostly yet real presence of the war and its ability to make and break bonds. In the Close, the boys experience very real extensions of the War: violence, betrayal, fear, intrigue, and heroism. Additionally, the war creeps into the home: notice that Keith’s violence and need to dominate was learned at home from his father. As such, Frayn offers a chilling picture of the War’s far-reaching effects beyond the battlefield and within the intimate homes of London.
War, Paranoia, and Belonging ThemeTracker
War, Paranoia, and Belonging Quotes in Spies
Does he know, even at that age, what his standing is in the street? He knows precisely, even if he doesn’t know that he knows it. In the very marrow of his bones he understands that there’s something not quite right about him and his family, something that doesn’t quite fit with the pigtailed Geest girls and the oil-stained Avery boys, and never will.
There’s always been something sinister about Mr. Gort’s house and Trewinnick, of course. But there’s something sinister about all these silent houses when you look at them like this. The less you see happening on the outside, the more certain you are that strange things are going on inside…
It's like the War Effort and the perpetual sense of strain it induces, of guilt for not doing enough toward it. The War Effort hangs over us for the Duration, and both the Duration and the long examination board of childhood will last forever.
Now all the mysteries have been resolved, or as resolved as they’re ever likely to be. All that remains is the familiar slight ache in the bones, like an old wound when the weather changes. Heimweh or Fernweh? A longing to be there or a longing to be here, even though I’m here already?