……..Female spy novels are a bit like London buses at the moment – I don’t read a book with a female spy protagonist for years and then two come along in quick succession! On the back of reading Jenny Rooney’s excellent ‘Red Joan’ I picked up a second-hand bookshop copy of William Boyd’s ‘Restless’, telling the story of Sally Gilmartin, an ageing middle-class woman living quietly in middle England in 1976, who suddenly hands her daughter Ruth a folder of pages titled ‘The Story of Eva Delectorskaya’. When a puzzled Ruth asks who Eva Delectorskaya is, Sally simply responds “Me…….I am Eva Delectorskaya”.
Having kept her ‘secret life’ just that for so long, there is of course a reason for Sally’s sudden decision to share her past with her daughter thirty years later – it’s a past that has come back to threaten her and she needs her daughters help. Through a combination of chapters telling the 1976 story from Ruth’s perspective, and a series of chapters in the third person telling Eva’s 1940’s story, William Boyd sets out a really cracking plot of a beautiful Russian emigre who is recruited by British intelligence in 1939 in Paris immediately after her brother Kolia’s funeral. She is ‘run’ by spymaster Lucas Romer, who becomes more than just a handler to Eva. He becomes teacher, mentor, confidante and lover. Eva moves to New York as part of the British Security Co-ordination, a massive World War Two counter-espionage progamme designed to spy on pro-Nazi movements in America while at the same time driving a propoganda campaign focused on levering the Americans into joining the Second World War. Eventually betrayed, Eva has to rely on her training to first escape with her life and then to reinvent herself.
There’s no real spoiler in that plot summary for this is a story with so much going on there’s no chance of doing more than skimming it in a review, though perhaps the fact that it’s got so so much going on might be the weakness in it too. But at it’s core it’s a really, really good spy thriller and as long as you don’t go looking for more than that you won’t be disappointed. I loved the intricacies of the art of spying in the book almost as much as I loved the action and the almost inevitable twists and turns in the story. At times I was enjoying the sheer thrill of the action so much I found some of it a little distracting and unnecessary – Ruth has a history with radical politics, there’s a casual affair with an Iranian student-cum-logder, there’s a minor link between Ruth and Baader-Meinhof terrorists and then there’s that love affair between Eva and Lucas – all these things are chucked into the pot but they seemed a bit superfluous to me – they don’t really add much to the story and I didn’t get any sense of the ‘feelings’ attached – in essence for me what’s in the book stands or falls by the extent to which it contributes to the action – or to put that another way as an example the affair between Eva and Lucas doesn’t feel very real or very important but in the grand scheme of the plot it doesn’t really matter!
There’s nothing surprising in the book, nothing pretentious and nothing forced – it’s just a spy thriller. At times it can make it seem a wee bit formulaic, a bit predictable and all low-brow James-Bond-esque stuff. I can see why that might annoy some readers – but for me, as a man who loves James Bond, a man who could get lost in a Le Carre and not look up between page one and the end, well it was pretty much not only what I expected but if I’m honest what I had hoped to find. Here is a short sample, as Lucas Romer does some final preparations before Eva becomes Eve Dalton, British spy….
‘What’re these for? I thought I was Eve Dalton?’
He explained. Everyone who worked for him, who was in his unit, was given three identities. It was a perk, a bonus – to be used as the recipient saw fit. Think of them as a couple of extra parachutes, he said, a couple of getaway cars parked nearby if you ever felt the need to use them one day. They can be very handy, he said, and it saves a lot of time of you have them already.
Eva put her two new passports in her handbag and for the first time felt a little creep of fear climb up her spine. Following-games in Edinburgh were one thing; clearly whatever Romer’s unit did was potentially dangerous. She clipped her handbag shut. ‘Are you allowed to tell me a bit more about this unit of yours?’
‘Oh, yes. A bit. It’s called AAS’ he said. ‘Almost an embarassing acronym, I know, but it stands for Actuarial and Accountancy Services’
It reads like a classic British 1950’s era spy movie – and for me that gives it a really authentic air. That coupled with the detail and research into the activities of British Intelligence during World War Two in the US make for a fascinating, almost film-noir feel to the book in places. William Boyd’s books are a fairly recent discovery for me and up to now I’ve really enjoyed them, as much for the literary feel of the writing as the stories in themselves……this was different….with Restless there was something missing in the literary sense……but to me it didn’t ultimately matter. As a straightforward, take it at face value spy story, it’s a great plot and for that reason alone, ‘Restless’ is well worth a read.
‘Restless’ by William Boyd was published by Bloomsbury. I bought this with my own hard-earned dosh for the princely sum of £1.99 in my local Oxfam Bookshop!
As it’s been out since around 2006, there are as you’d guess a plethora of reviews out there on the book. But in the book blog world, if you want to read a bit more about ‘Restless’, then I’d recommend you have a look at Late Nights With Good Books and The Book Heap. It was a much praised novel when it was released, not only shortlisted for the Costa Prize in 2006, but also shortlisted for the Richard and Judy British Book Award no less in 2007!
‘Restless’ was also turned into that BBC series that I mentioned above – not sure when it was shown in the UK but I can’t believe we missed it in our house as it stars Rufus Sewell, who’s pretty popular with the women chez moi!
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)