Monday, October 15, 2012

Review of Restless by William Boyd (Bloomsbury, 2006)

The hot summer of 1976 and Ruth Gilmartin is supposedly working on a history PhD thesis at Oxford University, but is actually spending most of her time teaching English to foreign students and raising her young son, Jochen.  Her mother lives in a cottage in the Cotswolds and has started to show signs of paranoia, watching the woods behind the house with binoculars.  Having built a new life for herself after war, she senses that her past is catching up with her and turns to Ruth for help, revealing her secrets.  Sally Gilmartin is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian émigré recruited by English spymaster Lucas Romer in Paris in 1939.  From there she is sent to Scotland for training before taking up a position in a small outfit run by Romer in Belgium that tries to plant disinformation in newspapers around the world aimed at misdirecting or undermining the German war effort.  The legacy of her time as a spy still haunts her and her training is telling her that she has one more mission to perform, one that she needs Ruth’s help to carry out.

Restless is told in chapters that alternate in time between 1976 and the war.  Whilst I found the more recent narrative to be well written and interesting, it is the war time tale that sparkles - Boyd wonderfully evokes Eva’s journey and the politics, intrigue, spy craft and danger of being a spy for a country at war.  Unfortunately the switching thus had the effect of breaking up Eva’s story with more mundane interludes that a love-sick Iran engineer/activist, suspect German guests, and Ruth’s investigation fail to enliven to the same intensity and vividness of the war years.  At one level then, this is a very good read, with engaging prose, strong characterization, and a well constructed plot; at another, it is a little uneven varying between good and outstanding, though Boyd does an excellent job of weaving the two strands together in the final part of the book with a satisfying resolution that has a nice twist.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Haven't read a book by Boyd in years but this one sounds brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Rob - I really do like the integration of two timelines like that. I must look this one up.

Keen Reader said...

Two constantly switching timelines like that drive me crazy.