Anna and Peter are growing up in a quiet village in the Cotswolds. The shadow of the Second World War still looms large; the Cold War is spreading its chill; yet the village remains a haven of "parochial naivety" where "what did not fit was not acknowledged to exist." Anna and Peter's mother does not fit. Vivacious and stylish, with a trace of a German accent, Karoline married Alec in 1947, when he was a British officer in Berlin. Of her early life, little is known except that she came from Königsberg, a city that cannot be found on the map. One foggy Monday in 1961, she sets out in her car and is never seen again. The children are told she has died in an accident; from then on, her existence is scarcely acknowledged.
Two days earlier, five members of a spy ring, in possession of secrets from the Underwater Weapons Establishment, had been arrested. Is there a connection? Against the background of this real-life spy case, Peter tries to make sense of their loss. A troubled, introspective boy, he develops an obsession with "the spy game". Brought up by their kind but emotionally reticent father, the children discover that others also have their secrets. The stiff lips of their neighbours hide the horrors of a Japanese POW camp. Anna's enigmatic piano teacher conceals a tragic past.
Georgina Harding's skill in evoking a sense of place and time is matched by an ability to enter into the lives of children, to capture their watchfulness and sense of exclusion from the adult world.
After her father's death, the middle-aged Anna finds her mother's diary, inscribed with a line from Eliot's "The Waste Land": "Lilacs out of the dead land". Armed with this clue, she sets out to solve the mystery of her mother's identity. As Anna's journey takes her from Berlin to bleak Kaliningrad, she comes to sense that perhaps such mysteries can never be entirely unravelled; that even those closest to us are ultimately unknowable.
The Spy Game, By Georgina Harding, Bloomsbury, £12.99, Order for £11.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897