In offering a review of a
novel by William Boyd I could certainly be accused of bias. I would proudly
plead guilty, since I regard him as one of just four or five British writers
who are capable of constructing supreme works of fiction, written in a
framework that is both informative and thought-provoking and all this set
within a continuum of contemporary or historical events which themselves
become re-interpreted by the fiction. In Restless, Boyd’s latest novel, he
has re-stated this ability and, if anything, written it larger via a smaller
The historical element in
Restless is supplied by the activities of an offshoot of World War Two
intelligence. Ostensibly a private, dis-ownable initiative of a particular
group, Boyd suggests that it formed an integral part of the British
strategy, during the early part of the war, to force the United States to
join the Allied effort. The fact, therefore, that it was undermined and
subverted so that it perhaps aimed to achieve the opposite of its brief was
probably par for the course when espionage meets its freelance counter, but
the denouement is surprising and wholly credible.
In front of this backdrop of
fact meeting fiction, we have a landscape of human relationships. Ruth is a
single mother in Oxford. She, herself, has had certain German connections,
nay relations, hence the motherhood. She makes a living teaching English to
foreign tutees, has several dubious visitors, dreams about completing an
aging PhD and generally spends much of her time looking after a precocious
five-year-old. And then her mother becomes someone quite unknown to her. The
widow in the Oxfordshire retreat suddenly becomes part Russian, part
English, with a French step-mother. She possessed several different
identities before she became Mrs Gilmartin and most of these were fiction to
provide cover for the others. How many of us, after all, can claim to have
known our parents before they were parents?
So, as Mrs Gilmartin the
mother reveals to her daughter via instalments of an autobiography that she
is really Eva Delectorskaya, recruited in Paris to conduct a campaign of
wartime disinformation in the United States, the complications of life
gradually attain the status of the mundane. Recruited, perhaps, because she
was rootless and thus expendable, Eva proved herself intellectually and
operationally superior to her manipulative managers and survived the posting
that was supposed to achieve their subverted ends and, at the same time,
erase her potential to supply evidence. Many years later, Eva, now Mrs
Gilmartin, feels the need to get even, to expose the double or triple-cross
for what it was and deliver at least a prod to the comfortable,
self-congratulatory but traitorous British establishment that ran her.
Daughter Ruth becomes the means.
So one messy life tries to tie
up its soggy ends via the actions of another who is apparently yet to attain
the same depths of complication. And she succeeds. The fright is delivered.
The memory that Eva, the mother, was fundamentally brighter than the upper
class Brits who were trying to manipulate her is rekindled. Her training was
perfect, but she went beyond it and the plan backfired, irrelevantly as it
turned out because greater events intervened. But years later, Eva, Mrs
Gilmartin, is still brighter than her boss and, through her daughter’s
efforts, she brings a special kind of justice to bear on the double-dealer
who ruined, but also perhaps made her life.
In characteristically humble
terms, William Boyd reminds us at the end that we are all watched, all
awaiting the cupboard to reveal its skeleton, but in our more mundane lives,
it is unlikely to be as colourful an event as that which Eva Delectorskaya,
Mrs Gilmartin, and her daughter Ruth uncover.