‘Deceptions’ by Rebecca Frayn


Fiction – paperback; Simon and Schuster; 240 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I suspect Rebecca Frayn may have personal reasons for not wanting to include her father’s name — the writer Michael Frayn — in any of the publicity material accompanying her new novel, but it was this very parentage that actually made me interested in reading Deceptions if for no other reason than to see if the writerly genes had been passed on. I am pleased to report that they have.

Deceptions, which is Frayn’s second novel, is literary fiction, but it could equally fall into the thriller camp because the narrative is so fast-paced and so well plotted it is next to impossible to put the book down. I read it in two sittings.

The nub of the story is one we have all heard before — the disappearance of a child — but Frayn tells it in a new and fresh way. She does this by making the almost step-father the narrator, which lends the story a rather detached, almost cold, tone. And mid-way through — and this is not a plot spoiler — there is news of the child’s fate, so that you are not left in limbo, wondering what has happened.

Deceptions opens on the day that 12-year-old Dan fails to return from his comprehensive school in West London. During the course of the police investigation, it seems more and more likely that he merely ran away. There are insinuations that Dan’s position as the sole male in the household, usurped by the impending wedding of his widowed mother, Annie, to Julian, an art consultant and narrator of the story, may have given him reason to flee. This theory is further supported by Dan’s recent bad behaviour at school where he has fallen in with a rather hostile and dubious bunch of under-achieving students.

But it is not so much the potential cause of Dan’s disappearance that Frayn trains her eye: it is the outfall of his loss on his mother and, in turn, her relationship with Julian. I imagine Annie’s behaviour is fairly natural of any mother who loses a child in strange circumstances: she never loses hope of a possible return. Julian, on the other hand, wants her to move on, and to come to terms with the notion that Dan may, in fact, be dead.

Over the past three years I had formed my own theory about Dan’s disappearance. […] At first I tried various circumspect means of broaching the subject, yet she was resolute in refusing to pick up on any of my cautious overtures. Each time I had to overcome a deep aversion to actually articulating the subject we had for so long tiptoed around. But eventually I took myself in hand by preparing a little speech, which I delivered one evening before my courage could fail me.

The outfall of this speech, which is almost as devastating as Dan’s disappearance, is long-lasting, because once the words have been said, they cannot be unsaid. For Julian, this is a recurring issue: how does he say the things that need to be said without being diminished in the eyes of Annie, whom he loves so much?

The over-riding theme, however, is the small deceptions we tell ourselves in order not to address the underlying cause of our sorrow or failings, because to do so would change things in irreversible ways. We see this in Annie’s love for, and belief in, her son, as she refuses to acknowledge that maybe she doesn’t know him as well as she thought.

There’s a real humanity about this story — and a truth about the ways in which we cope, not only with tragedy, but with day-to-day issues that challenge our perception of the world and our relationships with the people closest to us. And it feels incredibly authentic, perhaps because it was inspired by a true life case, the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay in 1994, whose fate remains unknown.

15 thoughts on “‘Deceptions’ by Rebecca Frayn

  1. Thanks for reminding me about this novel – I made a mental note to read it a while back when I read about it, but my mental state being what it is, had forgotten all about it. I’ve enjoyed books and, particularly, plays by her father and I’ll certainly be interested to try out this novel based on your review. (I see you are going to review The Twelve later this month. I’ve deliberately avoided reading this novel because of the serial killer angle, but I have eventually been persuaded to buy it because of the so many good (blog) reviews and because it was in a 3 for 2 deal in Waterstones. I look forward to comparing online notes with you about it! (Not sure I’ll get round to it by 24 July though but I may take it on holiday this summer with 14 others.)


  2. I love the sound of this one. I’ve enjoyed a few of her father’s books in the past, but didn’t even know she’d written a book until I saw your post. I’ll be ensuring I get hold of this one later in the year.


  3. Only a book blogger would admit to taking 14 books on holiday, Maxine! 😉
    I think you’d like this one — it’s not a crime novel, but it certainly has the “feel” of one, in the sense that you know something has happened to Dan and you keep turning the pages in order to find out his fate.


  4. I think you’d enjoy this, Jackie, because it has a great plot and the characters are really well drawn, and I know that’s the kind of stuff you look for in a novel.
    It would actually make a very good choice for a book group, as there is quite a lot of stuff to discuss. There’s many aspects I haven’t mentioned in my review, for fear of spoiling the plot, which would be interesting to mull over with other people…


  5. I do like the sound of this alot. I like the combination of literary and yet plot driven which is what I am craving at the moment with this humidity. Things that take too long to unwind are definitely for my autumnal/winter reading head.
    I loved Spies, its the only one of her fathers that I have read which my mother recommended. I must do a post on my mothers choices, shes staying soon so will harrass her then!


  6. Interesting – her Dad is a great writer of course, perhaps she got some tips from him? (and a few contacts in the publishing world perhaps). It sounds like a great read however, so perhaps she’s destined for a successful career as a writer.


  7. Excellent… do come back and tell me what you thought when you finished cos there’s a few aspects I’m dying to discuss but did not mention here because they’re plot spoilers.


  8. I’m not familiar with this novel, thanks for turning me on to it. I’m always on the look out for a book with an interesting perspective. It sounds, from your review, that the almost step-father never actually bonded with the missing boy?


  9. Our paperback copy of Deceptions begins with Prologue after that the chapters are numbered in descending order from 26 to 1. Is it supposed to be that way or is our copy misprinted?


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