Book review: 'Restless': A thriller without a hair out of place
Is there another novelist as unpredictable in his technique and choice of subject matter as British author William Boyd?
I can't think of one. Boyd has wrested narrative order from such oddly assorted topics as insurance scams, sleep therapy and Romanian gypsy life (in "Armadillo"); turbulence theory and chimpanzee wars (in "Brazzaville Beach"); and obsessions with movie-making and French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (in "The New Confessions").
His recent novel "Any Human Heart" took on most of 20th-century history as experienced by a globe-hopping hero, portrayed with such documentary-like precision, it seemed scarcely credible he never existed. In "Heart," Boyd eschewed the usual constraints of plot in order to focus on how a life takes shape, how its phases can be cut off in midstream, how those fragmentary phases can be as untidy or incongruous as you please - yet still all belong to one life.
Which makes his new novel that much more unexpected. Indeed, "Restless" is very like a genre novel: a World War II thriller, plus a little bit more, as it mixes meditations on mortality with questions of how well anyone knows anyone.
Summer, 1976. Floundering Oxford graduate student and single mom Ruth Gilmartin is growing concerned about her mother, Sally, who lives on her own in a cottage deep in the wilds of Oxfordshire.
Someone, Sally says, is trying to kill her.
To prove her case, Sally hands her daughter a document she's been writing: "The Story of Eva Delectorskaya." This third-person narrative tells how, in 1939 Paris, young Russian emigre Eva was recruited into a spy network working to draw the U.S. onto Britain's side in the coming war against Germany.
Sent for training to Scotland, then deployed to Manhattan as a journalist for a minor news agency (her cover), Eva busily plants false stories on the wire services, all intended to give the Germans pause about their military capabilities and to provoke doubts in the Americans about their failure to go to war against Hitler.
Sally's bombshell: She, Sally, is Eva Delectorskaya.
Daughter Ruth, who narrates the 1976-set portions of the novel, has difficulty swallowing this at first. She also has problems of her own to handle: an Iranian student who suddenly wants to marry her (Ruth teaches English as a foreign language) and a visitor from Germany who may be involved with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.
Still, Ruth has to take her mother's story seriously.
The organization Eva/Sally worked for in New York, British Security Coordination (BSC), really existed, but it remains little known (as Boyd explains in a note on the novel's historical background included in advance reading copies of "Restless" but dropped, alas, from the finished book).
In "Restless," Boyd makes clear why the Brits believed such an organization was needed. Although Roosevelt felt it imperative to fight the Nazis, a majority of Americans wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe. More than two years went by before the U.S. was drawn into the conflict -- and only then because of Pearl Harbor, not Britain's plight.
Boyd artfully captures how, in BSC's hands, an invented news story would circulate via the wire services from the U.S. to overseas and back, until it began "accumulating weight and significance -- more datelines, more sources somehow confirming its emerging status as fact." His portrait of a neutral United States in 1940 and 1941, trying to tune out the war in Europe, rings true, as does much of his period detail.
The action moves suspensefully along, and the clockwork precision of the book's plot can't be faulted, even if some of the chapter-end cliffhangers border on overkill. It helps to have Boyd's usual humor, especially in Ruth's handling of her possible-terrorist houseguests, spicing things up.
The problem? It's all a bit too tidy.
Boyd's best novels glory in the chaos of their heroes' lives. They're character-driven precisely because "character" is often all his anarchy-mired protagonists have going for them.
"Restless," by contrast, is almost fiendishly, irreproachably dapper a tense, noirish matinee idol of a book. It's just that if you're a longtime Boyd fan, you may find yourself itching for someone to reach out and muss the idol's hair a little.
"Restless" by William Boyd