The Spy Game by Georgina Harding
The direct gaze of the woman sipping a cup of tea on the dustjacket of the UK hardback really caught my eye – a spendid cover and evocative title too. Reading the blurb, I fully expected an espionage story straight out of John Le Carre, but this thoughtful and slow-burning novel is something completely different.
Set in the post-war years of the Cold War, Anna’s mother goes out in the car into the fog, and she never sees her again. The same day, a spy case involving people who were very ordinary breaks in the news. This leads Anna’s brother Peter to wonder if his mother was a sleeper, a spy in deep-cover waiting to be called into action. He can’t believe she just died in a car accident – he’s sure she’s alive somewhere with a different identity.
Their mother was a refugee from eastern Germany – with no family left – that’s all they know about her; their rather distant father prefers to disappear into his garden. This allows Peter to obsess about an alter ego for her – who she may have been meeting, what she may have been involved in. Anna is confused and feels her mother’s loss strongly, but goes along with her brother’s game. Eventually Peter goes off to boarding school, but he’s still haunted by his imaginings. The children grow up, grow apart and start families of their own. When Anna’s father dies, she feels a need for closure with her mother too, and plans to visit Konigsberg where she was born …
This profound and subtle novel explores loss and letting go. You feel a little of what it was like to be a ‘German’ or Eastern European in England after the war, with that slight strangeness and not quite fitting in to the quintessentially English countryside, that led Peter’s imagination into overload. Beautifully written, it takes its time getting to its conclusion, concentrating on the motherless siblings seen from Anna’s perspective, and how her disappearance affects their lives. At times, it was almost too slow-burning, but overall it was a powerful and thoughtful read. (8/10)
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The Spy Game by Georgina Harding, pub 2010 by Bloomsbury, paperback.