William Boyd’s Restless won the Costa Novel Award in 2006, and when I found a copy in our small library in Sicily (it had probably been left by a guest), I decided I had to read it. The reviews on the cover were effusive in their praise. For example, The Times was quoted on the front cover as saying: “Boyd is a first-rate storyteller and this is a first-rate story . . . An utterly absorbing page-turner.”
The setting of the novel is the early years of World War II, when Britain and Russia were fighting against Nazi Germany alone, and the US had not entered the war. The central female characters are Eva Delectorskaya and her daughter, Ruth. The chapters alternate between Ruth telling her side of the story, in the first person, from 1947 onwards, and Eva’s story being told in the third person from 1935 until 1941. Ruth does not know her mother as Eva; she knows her as Sally Gilmartin, née Fairchild. She also didn’t know that her mother was half Russian, half English, and was living in Paris, age 28, when the war broke out in 1939. The principal male character is Lucas Romer, who recruits Eva into a special branch of the British Secret Service. Eva is beautiful and fluent in Russian, English and French. After being recruited and trained in Scotland, one expects that Eva will be parachuted into France to work alongside the French resistance. But we learn – partly through the files that Eva/Sally passes to her daughter and partly from Eva herself – that she has been recruited into an organisation which attacks Germany through the media. The stories that the organisation places are sometimes fabrications and sometimes exaggerations or little-noticed Nazi misdeeds. In 1940, the organisation, including Lucas and Eva, move to New York City, where their focus shifts to persuading a reluctant American people to join the war against Germany. Eva and Lucas become lovers, and for Eva, Lucas is the perfect secret agent: brilliant, and devious, but devastatingly attractive. Of course, they succeed in persuading the White House to go to war, but just before Pearl Harbor, Eva is sent on a mission during which she is nearly killed. Suspecting everyone, including Lucas, she goes onto hiding: first in Canada and then in England. Years later, as an old woman, she persuades Ruth to help her unmask the traitor.
What could be a better story?
What I particularly liked about it was the subversive activity involving the use of the media. One wouldn’t expect media people to be literally assassins, but when one is a traitor and one has to prevent something from happening, one uses strong measures. The daughter who doesn’t know the truth about her mother, who discovers it during the course of the novel, and who collaborates with her in realising the conclusion, is another appealing feature. The story is very well-written – not in a literary style – but in straight-forward, clear language.
The only faults I could find were what seemed to be a little bit of ‘filler material’ about Ruth’s occupation: teaching English as a second language to business people. I also wasn’t clear about what actually happened during Ruth’s nearly-fatal mission. Somehow, it didn’t all fit together.
But having said that Restless is a first rate thriller, and if you decide to pick it up, be sure you haven’t any pressing engagements: it’s difficult to put it down.