Spy novels should be exciting and surprising, but this one is flat and light.
Spy stories capture every child’s imagination. Who of us didn’t, in our pre-teen days, sneak around writing down the “suspicious” activities of a perfectly innocent family member?
Now imagine that you’re eight years old at the height of the Cold War, and one day your East German mother disappears. The next day, the newspapers are full of a story about a Soviet spy ring. Sure, the adults tell you that your mother died in a car accident. But this is Britain in 1961, where children don’t go to the funeral, so you have no evidence of her death.
Such is the story of Anna and her older brother Peter in The Spy Game. Peter furiously gathers evidence of their mother’s supposed undercover activities, while Anna is more reluctant to dig into any secrets. But 40 years later, the doubts Peter sowed linger. When Anna visits her mother’s ancestral home for the first time, she starts to suspect that the truths she may uncover won’t be as romantic as those imagined in childhood.
Anna’s search should make for an exciting story. The details of a young girl’s inner life, such as Anna’s girlish crush on her piano teacher, are vividly portrayed and animate those sections of the book. But the adult Anna is expert at hiding her emotions, even from the reader, so revelations that should be deep and shocking remain flat and light. For those who grew up on a diet of spy stories, this novel provides little in the way of surprises.