the guardian Fri 05 June 2009
On a freezing January morning in 1961, eight-year-old Anna Wyatt's mother disappears: "a kiss no more than a brush of breath and powdered cheek" and she is gone, her car apparently skidding on black ice on the way to London. Later the same day a sensational story breaks on the evening news. Five suspected Soviet agents have been arrested in connection with the theft of official secrets from the Portland naval base. Among the accused are antiquarian booksellers and a housewife whose shopping basket is found to contain a package from the newsagent's, a tin of tongue and admiralty documents including details of Britain's first nuclear submarine.
The discovery of the Portland spy ring gripped a country already beset by cold war paranoia: "Tools, gadgets, evidence. That is what fascinated people so. There was the ordinariness of the people and then there was the evidence of the house ... It made spying such a homely sort of thing." So homely that Anna and her elder brother Peter begin to wonder if the arrest of the Portland spies may be linked to their mother's disappearance.
It is not difficult for two children with active imaginations to make the connection, particularly given that their mother was an East German refugee. Neither Anna nor her brother attended the funeral, being considered too young, nor have they ever seen the grave, which naturally fuels speculation that she may still be alive. The children mount their own surveillance operation, compiling dossiers on family and neighbours, but what begins as a game gradually develops into an unhealthy obsession.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it may be because it bears more than a passing resemblance to Michael Frayn's novel Spies, in which a young boy becomes convinced that his best friend's mother is a secret agent. No doubt the similarity is coincidental, yet both novels are sophisticated conceits, written from the point of view of adult narrators whose fascination for espionage is really a means of reflecting on the unreliable, impressionistic process of memory. The difference is that whereas Frayn manipulates a schoolboy yarn into a grand, conceptual joke, Harding develops the theme of secret lives in earnest. What Anna finds so compelling about the Portland spies "was the completeness of the lies they lived", and her mission to establish her mother's identity leads to her combing through various archives in London, Berlin and finally the remote Baltic outpost of Kaliningrad.
Harding was a travel writer before turning to fiction and her impressions of this little-visited city, which only became accessible to foreigners in 1992, inspire some of the most vividly realised passages in the book. Significantly, she finds the former Prussian city of Königsberg subject to a ruthless, Soviet-era reconstruction: "The Russians did not just take the city and rename it, they systematically destroyed its identity, made it into another place altogether."
The conclusive evidence, stumbled upon in a grey, Stalinist office block "appropriately resembling a filing cabinet", is perhaps a little too neat to serve as a completely satisfying denouement. But it's a compelling tale suffused with hauntingly enigmatic images, such as the melancholy piano tutor, drifting around her house "like a density in the darkness". Above all, Harding unerringly captures the anxiety of an age which still felt "a chill disgust for spies and traitors", when espionage seemed an unassumingly suburban thing to do.