cover image Now You Know

Now You Know

Michael Frayn. Viking Books, $21 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-670-84554-5

Frayn ( A Landing on the Sun ) again wickedly anatomizes the British civil service; this time his effort is more virtuosic, yet ultimately less affecting. His protagonist, Terry, runs an eccentric group dedicated to digging out and publicizing the government's dark secrets. While Terry is trying to expose the Home Office's handling of a case in which a man has been badly beaten by the police, a bewildered Home Office official, Hilary Wood, meets him by chance, trying to escape her ineffectual boyfriend. Hilary is drawn to Terry's massive self-confidence; briefly, they are lovers, and she begins to turn over precious departmental secrets to him. What this does to Terry and his wonderfully observed office colleagues--ever-smiling Shireen at the switchboard, bossy socialite Jacqui (another flame of his); secretive, smart Liz; and hopeless Kevin and Kent, the office boys--is the story. Frayn manages to enter each of their psyches in the first person (leading to some confusion at first), and with extraordinary mimicry he sets forth their various obsessions and self-justifications, which end in a magnificent office row. Despite Frayn's extreme skill and his keen sense of human foibles, however, the book doesn't quite come to life for an American reader; Terry is perhaps too English a type to be entirely convincing on this side of the water, while painfully bewildered Hilary is frankly unbelievable in American terms. (Feb.)