Undercover Mother

The setting is the English countryside in the early 1960s. The time is winter — what seems like eternal winter. Little Anna Wyatt’s mother, a German war refugee, leaves the house one morning, never to return. There’s been an accident, a neighbor explains — something about the car, the fog. Mummy, Anna eventually understands, has gone to heaven.

Two days earlier, a perfectly suburban couple were arrested on charges of treason. It’s that time in the annals of the cold war: every week brings news of spy rings and espionage. So one day Peter, Anna’s irascible older brother, asks: What if Mum isn’t dead? What if she was . . . a spy?

Georgina Harding’s second novel — her first, “The Solitude of Thomas Cave,” was an atmospheric account of an English sailor’s solitary winter on an Arctic island — proposes a tantalizing mystery. Karoline Wyatt, née Odewald, vanished from Königsberg after its conquest by the Red Army, then reappeared in occupied Berlin only two years later. Had she become a Soviet spy?

It turns out that Harding is less interested in answering this question than in exploring how children try to understand the adult world. Peter and Anna’s investigations become increasingly fevered because they have been shielded by the adults around them; as a result, their inquiries remain confined to the imagination. When you think about it, playing a “spy game” is also a fairly apt term for growing up — for learning to navigate around adulthood’s concealments and false fronts.

The story of Anna’s mother is interwoven with that of a German Jewish refugee, Sarah Cahn. In a milieu of deeply conventional rural British women, Cahn is a chic, Continental rarity — “her clothes were dark. . . . Her eyes were dark pools.” A piano teacher, she sounds the novel’s sole sexual note. But her health declines mysteriously, leading Anna to tremble at the thought that her suspicions — was Sarah Cahn also a spy? — somehow contributed to the woman’s demise.

To a child, the true extent of her own power is as much of an enigma as the real identity of her parents. But what is Sarah Cahn’s downfall supposed to mean? And why is Peter such a crank? The boy, it emerges, taunted his mother shamefully, and after her departure he callously manipulates his sister’s emotions. There’s a slight suggestion that unlike, say, the neighbor who looks after Anna and “could never settle a thought, . . . as if looking fully at something might stop you altogether, freeze you in your tracks,” Peter is inconveniently brash in a time and place defined by euphemism and indirection.

Harding’s own storytelling — full of melodramatic marveling, but also maintaining an odd clinical distance — is circumspect. It strains for thematic convergence (“Cold, waking me up. A Monday in January during the cold war”), but a little too much remains in the shadows, clever device though this is for a spy novel. For instance, if Anna is old enough to suspect her mother of being a spy, isn’t she old enough to miss her just a little?

The reader wishes Harding had paid more attention to the engrossing, if more obvious, mystery of Karoline Wyatt’s real identity. She devotes her final pages to a present-day hunt for the real story by a middle-aged Anna, who has kept her parental obsession under wraps. What she discovers would have made a pretty suspenseful novel.

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