William Boyd begins his new novel Restless with an irresistible hook. Here are the first two paragraphs:
When I was a child and being fractious and contrary and generally behaving badly, my mother used to rebuke me by saying: ‘One day someone will come and kill me and then you’ll be sorry’; or, ‘They’ll appear out of the blue and whisk me away—how would you like that?’; or, ‘You’ll wake up one morning and I’ll be gone. Disappeared. You wait and see.’
It’s curious but you don’t think seriously about these remarks when you’re young. But now—as I look back on the events of that interminable hot summer of 1976, that summer when England reeled, gasping for breath, pole-axed by the unending heat—now I know what my mother was talking about. I understand that bitter dark current of fear that flowed beneath the placid surface of her orderly life—how it had never left her even after years of peaceful, unexceptionable living. I now realise she was always frightened that someone was going to come and kill her. And she had good reason.
The narrator is Ruth Gilmartin, a struggling single mother and a graduate student, making a living teaching English as a second language while her doctorate languishes unfinished. Her mother Sally Gilmartin has lived a fairly conventional life as an English housewife for more than thirty years. But, as Ruth soon finds out, she began her life as someone else entirely. She is Eva Delectorskaya, born in Russia, and recruited by the British Secret Service at the age of twenty-eight in Paris in 1939. In alternating chapters, Restless tells Ruth’s story of the summer of her mother’s revelation, and Eva’s story of her recruitment, training and perilous life as a spy during World War II, first in Europe then in the United States.
Eva’s story is every bit as riveting as Boyd’s enticing opening would lead you to expect, right from the moment when her new identity as spy crystallizes for her:
She realised suddenly that everything had indeed changed, that she was now looking at the world in a different way. It was as if the nervous circuits in her brain had altered, as if she’d been rewired […] She understood now, with almost distressing clarity, that for the spy the world and its people were different than they were for everybody else. […] She thought about what Romer had said, about his one and only rule, and she thought: was this the spy’s particular, unique fate—to live in a world without trust? She wondered if she would ever be capable of trusting anyone again.
The answer to Eva’s question may seem obvious, but the thought processes and the experiences that lead her to that answer are no less fascinating for that.
The weakness in the novel lies in the segments devoted to Ruth. There is plenty of interesting detail to savour in her story too, though obviously it doesn’t have the same urgency and suspense that Eva’s does. But somehow Ruth never coalesced into a coherent character for me. Her voice was inconsistent, and many of the details of her life struck me as convenient for the story rather than integral to her character. For example, her status as a graduate student served the plot well at a moment when it was useful for her to have some research skills and some academic contacts. But there was no point prior to that at which she demonstrated any passion for scholarship, not even the conflicted feelings about it that one might expect to encounter in a graduate student thoroughly estranged from her doctorate.
The novel also falls short in the looseness with which the alternating narratives are wound together. Eva’s story stands on its own; it was written for Ruth but it predates her. Whereas Ruth’s story is unfolding alongside the revelation to her of her mother’s true identity and secret life. Yet the implications of that revelation for Ruth’s life and the effect on her relationship with her mother are barely touched on. After the nuance and complexity with which the themes of trust and betrayal are explored within Eva’s story, it seems a lamentable missed opportunity to have left those themes hanging in so far as the relationship between Eva (Sally) and Ruth is concerned. Boyd is an enormously talented writer. He could have done much more with this aspect of the novel and I wish that he had chosen to do so.
For the reasons articulated above, I think that Restless is deeply flawed. Yet Eva Delectorskaya’s story is such a fascinating one that the novel well worth reading all the same. Ultimately I recommend it, albeit with reservations.