A close study of style, perspective, tense and privet

“Spies” by Michael Frayn is a very effective and well written novel. Frayn incorporates a variety of techniques and methods in the story making it not only well crafted, but also successful. This can be seen not only throughout the novel as a whole, but particularly so over pages fifty-six and fifty seven (part of chapter three).

Looking mainly at Frayn’s writing style, as we have already seen, he mostly sticks to using the narrator as a tool to describe events that are happening in the novel. There are, of course, times when Frayn uses direct speech to describe any occurrences. Over these two pages, there is a substantial decrease in reported speech, and an increase in direct speech between both Keith and Stephen. The use of direct speech here gives the narrative an ‘edge’: “we’ll do it after school / what about when it’s tea or supper? / we can take turns.” It creates the impression to the reader that they’re actually hearing the conversation take place, whilst simultaneously giving it a more rushed, realistic tone.

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Over only one page, Frayn uses the ellipsis tool (…) a total of four times. This is a clever tool to use when a writer wants to represent his or her characters are trailing off into imagination, wondering “what if” scenarios, or sometimes to keep the reader in suspense, not revealing a crucial piece of information. Frayn uses the ellipsis to both ends. Firstly, the narrator describes a journey in his mind: “through the bushes above the quarries – out onto the open fairway …”. This represents a journey with the narrator trailing off into imagination and memories. Frayn also uses the ellipsis to illustrate omitted words: “Not, presumably, that we’re going to …? Not his own mother …!”. Here, after having been given a description of a bayonet, the reader can infer that Keith, somewhere in his mind, has the idea of killing his own mother, a “German spy”. The exclamation mark at the end of the ellipsis represents the end of the crescendo, the building up to the point of revealing what Keith has the intention of doing. It portrays the tone well, as we, the readers, can feel the excitement of the aforementioned building up of suspense.

The use of rhetorical questions such as “What does he mean?” are effective because they show what the inner person feels, and thinks. He [Stephen] is undoubtedly confused. It also succeeds into answering any questions the reader wants answered. If they wanted to know what Keith meant, they were about to get the answer! In that respect, therefore, the use of rhetorical questions has a double-effect.

The tenses that Frayn switches between in his work are intriguing. The narrator uses the present tense when describing things that happened in the past, when the narrator was his own younger self. Up to now, Frayn has mainly considered the narrator and the young Stephen as two separate entities, but over these two pages, the narrator is seen to reflect back to his younger self – to Stephen : “I shiver”, despite being in the past tense. The narrator tells us that he can see “candles flickering, and the deep darkness of the night outside”. All the description culminates to the effect of making the reader see the surroundings very vividly, in effect, making them involved.

Unlike other books, this story (particularly evident over the two pages in question) is seen solely from Stephen’s perspective (be he young or old; the narrator). As already said, the narrator uses the present tense in his descriptions of the past, whether he sees sights, or is involved in conversation. We get very accurate details of conversations from Stephen’s own perspective, which helps to enhance the vividness of the story.

The incident of “privet” on page fifty-seven is the third occasion that it has arisen. It is coincidental (perhaps even ironic) on this occasion, however. It is because of the privet, or “liguster” that the readers are even reading this story, as the older Stephen delved into his past, and his memories. Keith, the upper-class child, of whom, school wise, everything was “yellow and black” wrote on a tile “privet” instead of “private”. Obviously, this goes to show that even those from upper-class backgrounds are indeed, also, fallible. Keith, the dominant one in the friendship between the boys misspelled a simple word that Stephen, a boy from a lower-class background knew how to spell. Stephen says that he doesn’t like “to query this, now that he’s written it so neatly and authoritatively”. Authoritative is a word which describes Keith very well, seeing as Stephen looks up to him, and is more than willing to follow ‘orders’ from him.

The final sentence of chapter three: “In any case, the sense of it is plain enough – that we’re commencing a long journey on a lonely road, where no one else can follow” is very significant indeed. It more-or-less has a double meaning. Firstly, it signifies that Keith and Stephen are on, what they see to be, an official mission – hunting a spy down, and they’re doing it alone, hence the “lonely road”. However, this sentence also could be significant as to foreshadow future events. “a lonely road … where no one else can follow” holds strong links to their futile attempts to follow Mrs Hayward. They can never seem to keep the chase up as they continually lose her. The “long journey” though, still, undoubtedly refers to the mission that they boys are on. The reader would probably not pick up on the second point, not having read the book through before. It would, therefore, act as an incentive to carry on reading to find out just what the “long journey” holds for the two boys.

In conclusion, it can be seen that Frayn is very effective at using a wide range of techniques such as style, perspective, irony, rhetorical questions and double meanings (to name but just a few, over just two pages) to get reader response. The two pages are two very vivid pages, which clearly engage the reader, and provide subtle clues as to what they can expect the story to offer.


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