As a child in the 1970s, the nameless narrator and his three German cousins attempt to find out about their estranged grandfather and late grandmother. But as they try to piece together the origin of their unusual dark "Italian" eyes, they start to obsessively mix fact and fiction. Was their grandfather really a pilot with a secret Luftwaffe unit in the Spanish civil war, and could he still be alive? Was their grandmother, whose face has been removed from the family album, really a famous opera singer? And why did their grandfather’s second wife destroy all memories of his first wife? The clues to their heritage are sparse, and the mysteries abound.
Harcourt. 288 pages. $24. ISBN: 0151008590
NY Times Book Review
"The book . . . offers no true resolution, but it is satisfyingly rich in mysteries, including that of the narrator’s own reliability. Thirty years later, he is still trying to understand his family’s history, and the story he unfolds about his grandparents’ marriage is less the marshaling of evidence than the wish-fulfilling tale of a frustrated soul desperate for something to believe in." Priya Jain
"His characters are deeply infected by tiny specks of anxiety that spread like fungus in the dark, airless realm of self-consciousness. . . . What’s most brilliant and unsettling about Spies is the way Beyer universalizes—not the crimes of Nazism but the pernicious secrecy of families." Ron Charles
Beyer, author of The Karnau Tapes (1997) and named by The New Yorker as one of the best contemporary European novelists, uses the metaphor of espionage to describe four cousins’ attempt to piece together their complex heritage—and understand themselves and the burden of their Nazi past. Told from various perspectives and in flashbacks over different decades, the story offers more a slideshow of a random family than a seamless narrative. Yet the meshing of fact and fiction—even the narrator may not be reliable—touched critics, who saw in the characters a desperate need to define identity. Despite the unresolved nature of the novel, readers should embrace this romance, drama, and psychological thriller.