Beyer's novel applies a unique perspective to personal history, a psychological interpretation of children's curiosity about their ancestors - in this case, the identity of a gypsy-eyed grandmother who passed along this most outstanding feature to her grandchildren.
The lyrical tale begins with the Spanish Civil War and Germany's secret air force, as a young pilot wins the heart of an opera singer, she of the Italian eyes. The descendants of the dark-eyed singer and her pilot are four grandchildren - two sisters, a brother and a male cousin - their childhood spent in pursuit of images of this mysterious woman. The children carry the dominant trait, the flashing Italian eyes so unlike others in their neighborhood.
As children, the four form an impenetrable wall to protect themselves from the bullies who harass them for their difference, spending untold hours discussing their grandparents, longing for at least one image of the opera singer whose eyes can be found nowhere in the family album. After their grandmother's death, the grandfather remarried and his new wife eradicated all traces of the first.
We learn the names of three of the children - Carl, Pauline and Nora - but their cousin, the narrator, remains unnamed, and it is through him that the story plays out. In a blue-eyed world, these four children are an anomaly, their coloring hinting of family secrets. What the adults keep to themselves, the children embroider, intent on their own truth.
Shifting between generations, the narrator speaks as an adult of the cousins as children, the war years and the love affair of their exotic grandmother and her aviator. The characters are eccentric, could-be residents of Grimm's Fairy Tales, as seen through the dark eyes of the cousins. Contradictions are everywhere; the narrator is careful to point out many interpretations of a single incident, maybe this was what happened, maybe that.
There is, indeed, a mystery, for the opera singer's pilot disappeared for a time from the arms of his betrothed; he returned, but as a keeper of secrets, a private, careful man. The children build another reality to embrace their quest, sure that somehow they will solve the enigma of the wartime lovers. The four become spies, seekers of truth.
Spies is extraordinarily visual, smells, sights, sounds all part of the eloquent language, a shifting array of possibilities: "The black papa falcons, with their uneven wings, faulty beaks and misshapen heads have long been scraped off... and replaced with commercial decals of birds of prey." Finally, the four cousins, now adults, are trapped in their perceptions of each other, memories bound by the strange rituals of children.
The author's prose is astonishing and intimate as the narrator whispers secrets no one else can hear, carrying the bright memories of youth, the familiarity of war and a generation defined by its terrible consequences, but also a past where secrets take on a life of their own and magical eyes inhabit the foolish dreams of children, the past more real than the future. As the narrator admits: "We underestimated the power of words."