The Spy Game, By Georgina Harding

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Georgina Harding's second novel informs us that, long after everything else about Portland is forgotten, the tale of the spy ring discovered at its naval base in 1961 will be remembered. At the time this genuine scandal broke, my parents were living over the causeway in Weymouth, lodging with a colleague of one of the traitors. Their house was duly picked apart by the special squad. Harding will be glad to know that they insist it was the biggest thing to hit town since George III.

The nice suburbanites caught with a basket holding "specifications of HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine; a package from the newsagent's and a tin of tongue" were an inconceivable notion. Public reaction to spy scandals is now diluted by cynicism about the organisations these moles infiltrate. Then, however, the disbelief and hatred they incited was absolute. So it seems a perfect trigger for a story that is as subtle and elusive as the passage of time since.

The same weekend that the Portland case hit the headlines, Harding's protagonists, eight-year-old Anna Wyatt and her brother, Peter, are told that their mother has died in a car crash. Their mother's German origins and the missing years between the Russians' occupation of her Konigsberg home and her marriage to their English father spark doubt in the siblings' overactive minds. That they last saw her disappearing into the mysterious fog of an Oxfordshire pea-souper only adds to their suspicion that she was a Soviet "sleeper" and might be still alive.

"Perhaps it was easier than it seemed. Perhaps you simply took up the role and smiled in it," ponders Anna. The pair analyse all dates connected with their mother and correlate them to those attached to the ever-frosty Cold War. Links are made and the assumptions of youth begin to set. Yet we are never told how much is imagination, how much genetic intuition. What follows takes us back and forth from initial childhood investigations to Anna's journey to Russia decades later.

The limbo years book-ended by the war and the point when the 1960s really kicked off are finely wrought in the first half of the book. As are the Wyatts' middle-class days, full of music lessons and boarding schools, travel trunks and tuck boxes. In family life, distance can breed mistrust, which in turn can create wariness. It is into these gaps that Harding cleverly slots theories of subterfuge and false identities as the siblings take on the perceived mantle of their mother.

In Harding's debut, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, she evoked the isolation of a 17th-century whaler exiled in the Arctic tundra. In The Spy Game, her focus on the left and lonely is equally powerful. She is also particularly astute at capturing the sensory processes of memory. The "empty smell" of a damp church, the view of a quarried scar on a hillside: these are Anna's markers for the childhood moment when she was told of her mother's fate.

Many writers, from Harper Lee to Suzanne Berne, have explored children's skewed view of the adult world. Georgina Harding has equalled their take while playing cat and mouse with readers' expectations as to what kind of book she has written: a thriller, family saga or study on loss? Perhaps it's all three. Whatever it is, this is an elegant novel, as lucid and seamless as the perfect cover story.