Restless by William Boyd

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Restless by William Boyd

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: As beautifully written as you'd expect, William Boyd's venture into the world of the spy thriller is classy but oddly distant and formal. It is slow to gather momentum, but the pace is picked up smartly for the denouement.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747586203

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Ruth Gilmartin is a single mother, PhD student and teacher of English as a foreign language. She's immediately recognisable - her life is fairly comfortable but it could be better; she loves her son but she does have some regrets; she's happy as she is but occasionally gets lonely; she should get on with her thesis, but a bottle of wine and a night in front of the television proves an all-too-frequent better option. Ruth's mother, Sal, is an idiosyncratic widow who lives in a back of beyond Oxfordshire village and spends most of her time gardening.

So far, so familiar.

But all this normality is shattered when Sal starts behavingly strangely and takes to a wheelchair, claiming a patently fraudulent back injury. Sal gives Ruth a manuscript, which proves to be the first instalment of an autobiographical account of Sal's role as a British spy during the Second World War. It seems that Sal was born Eva Delectorskaya - this is such a silly name, I'm sure I was supposed to make something of it, but I'm afraid whatever it was I was supposed to make, I didn't - the daughter of a White Russian who had fled the revolution and arrived in Paris via Peking. She was recruited by the British secret services in 1939 after the murder of her brother, recruited before her.

The story then proceeds in episodic form, following the WWII spy thriller of Eva's manuscript, and the 1976 mystery in which Ruth must help her mother escape the ghosts of her past in one last covert operation.

As you would expect, William Boyd has turned out an impeccably written book. You simply couldn't fault his prose and seldom has genre fiction been given such an artistic, elegant gloss. It's so nice to read a thriller in which loose ends and sentences are equally well-tied. Fans of spy thrillers might find Restless a little dilatory as the tension and pace are geared smoothly and slowly and really don't ratchet up to a rate of knots until you are at least halfway through. I liked this, but I can imagine some people wouldn't.

I had one problem with Restless and it was a pretty big problem. I didn't like Sal/Eva and I didn't like Ruth. They are both highly intelligent, but are cold and rather graceless women. They don't seem even to like each other very much. The paranoid, suspicious life of a spy must engender this kind of emotional void in a person, and it's understandable to think that her time in espionage left Sal so objective and so calculating. But to be honest, I felt as though she had been such a person from the start - I didn't feel sorry for the emotional damage done to her. I didn't feel that she was a metaphor for alienation. And there was no reason for Ruth to be so unappealing. Much as I was turning the pages of Restless, eager for the denouement, I was turning them with a cerebral interest, not an emotional connection. I didn't really care whether or not things turned out well for either mother or daughter. It's said that Boyd writes a great female character, but I found these women impossible to relate to.

If you like your mystery stories to appeal to your intellect, not your emotions, you will enjoy Restless. If you are a fan of good writing and want to see what a really good writer does with a spy thriller, you will enjoy it too. If, like me, you need to have an emotional relationship with characters, if you want them to provoke a strong reaction in you, you'll enjoy it a lot less.

Objectively, I enjoyed this oddly distant novel. Emotionally, I'm afraid it left me unimpressed.

If you're looking for a lighter thrill set in WWII, you could try The Ice Soldier by Paul Watkins or if you're looking for another piece of literary fiction that talks about secrets in families, Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk might suit.

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Magda said:

It reminds me of my feelings about Kafka. But then, he doesn't really write about people as we know them, does he?

I think genre fiction requires a character one can connect with and like: that's necessary for the escapist function to work. In literary mainstream it's possible to make a fairly compelling book without a likeable character, even with all of them being pretty repulsive (Martin Amis, with everything I read of his which is not much; also McEwan's Amsterdam); but I agree it makes them hard work to read. Is it the reason you don't like Virginia Woolf? (or am I remembering wrongly?).

Jill replied:

Yes. I wouldn't have minded Restless if it had roused me to really dislike either of the main characters, but it didn't even manage that. I was simply indifferent to them both. You're right. I don't like Virginia Woolf. I can cope with style over substance if it is couched in a humorous book as it is with a lot of cult fiction. But if the whole point of the book is style over substance, then I just think the author would have been better off contemplating their navel in the privacy of their bedroom, not foisting their navel onto the rest of us. Virginia Woolf is the perfect example of this. We have poetry to extend the bounds of language for us, thankyouverymuch. We have novels to engage with.

andyjack55 said:

But Sal/Eva WAS objective and calculating from the start, as evidenced by her thoughts about Romer when she first meets him and wants to upset his confidence. Why do you need an emotional connection with the characters?

Jill replied:

I think people - I perhaps - need to have some kind of reaction to a character in any book for it to create any hold. I don't have to like them; disliking them does just as well. Frankly, I didn't give a fig what happened to either of these women, thus didn't care greatly for the book overall. Perhaps Boyd just can't create credible women, neither of these two were remotely like any women I know.