Georgina Harding’s The Spy Game is a brilliant novel - one of the best contemporary novels I've read this year. As newspapers in economic slumps cut their book sections, it becomes more and more difficult to sift through the new books. Harding is an extremely entertaining and subtle writer - though this is not a spy novel, if that's what you're looking for.
The Spy Game is a luminous novel about identity, childhood, and history, centered on the imagination of two English children whose German immigrant mother dies in in 1961. The narrator, Anna, on the eve of a trip to investigate her mother’s history in the former East Germany, vividly recalls her childhood grief, when she, at eight, was in thrall to her older brother Peter’s conviction that their mother was a spy. Harding winds in and out of time and portrays Anna’s sensibility and inventiveness from a canny present and credulous past point of view. Peter’s irritating reactions are sympathetically presented by the adult Anna, who realizes that their mother’s German identity led to the bullying of Peter at school - the condemnation of Peter as a “Nazi” by his peers.
Harding’s extraordinarily clear style smoothly intermingles the complex children’s fantasy with real and imagined history: the Kroger spy case, written about in the newspaper two days before their mother’s death, is the catalyst for Peter’s theories that their mother is alive and may have gone back “behind the iron curtain.” Ambivalent about the spy hypothesis, never certain whether it is true or a game, Anna is frightened by Peter’s obsession. As he points out, there is no proof of their mother’s death: the children were not taken to the funeral.
Although she spends her days with her ordinary friend, Susan Lacy, and the rather dull Mrs. Lacey, Anna cannot escape remembrance of her own mother. The piano pieces she reluctantly learns from her German-Jewish music teacher begin to terrify her, as she mixes them in her mind with Miss Cahn’s reminiscences about childhood in Germany (which in some ways parallels that of her own mother’s). Anna eventually gives up playing because she refuses to think about the implications of Germany. But lMiss Cahn’s fate is intertwined with hers. Peter spies on her, ironically convinced that this lonely German refugee also may be a spy (because she is German and entertains German friends).
The piano teacher’s house was at the other end of the village on a street that led out towards the main road. It was a plain street squeezed up against the hillside, the houses all much the same, stone houses with narrow windows right on the pavement that you could see into, china ornaments arranged on the sill for you to see, empty armchairs in neat front rooms. Sarah Cahn’s was set back from the rest by just a few steps, so there was space for the plants that grew up the walls and hung close about the windows that time of year.
What Anna learns about her mother many years later in the former East Germany is not what she expects. But the pieces of the puzzle, which she realizes can be put together in many ways, help her assuage her grief.