William Boyd shows us in his latest novel, Restless, that in the blink of an historical eye alliances can change. In both the larger scale of country to country and the smaller scale of person to person, the word “friendship” is meaningless and we can never know for certain where a person’s loyalties lie. Since part of the novel takes place in the time period just before the United States entered World War II, with the benefit of knowing what came after, we can also see that what seemed benign at the time grew into a malignity in the future. The other part of the novel takes place in 1976, and again with the benefit of foreknowledge, we see nascent and well-behaved political unrest that will grow into something more chaotic and dangerous in our present world. The larger issues play in the background -- albeit, a sometimes loud and insistent background -- to the front stories of a mother and her daughter.
Sally Gilmartin is really Eva Delectorskaya, a resident of Paris, by birth a Russian, and a woman who loses this identity when she becomes a spy for Great Britain during World War II. You’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t after me”? In 1976, Sally is a grandmother and Eva has long disappeared, but an unknown event has triggered a paranoia in Sally that her past is on the verge of catching up with her. She decides to tell her daughter, Ruth, about her hidden life. Boyd tells Ruth’s and Sally’s stories in alternating chapters.
Ruth has a small life in Oxford as an academic, a teacher of English to foreigners, a mother to a young boy, and the ex-girlfriend of a German man whose wayward brother has insidiously moved into Ruth’s apartment. When her mother slowly begins to reveal who Eva was, Ruth is uncertain whether her mother is telling the truth or sick from some delusional ailment.
Eva’s story begins with a casual recruitment by a strange acquaintance of her dead brother. Gradually Eva becomes more enmeshed in the propaganda machine Great Britain uses to sway other countries into allying with them and is later involved in more intricate activities. Initially, Ruth’s story is ordinary and uneventful in counterpoint to the increasing strangeness and exoticism of her mother’s tale, but we gradually learn that certain associations Ruth has tie into a dangerous part of the world in 1976, with implications for something more serious in the future. The spy apple may not fall far from the tree!
Boyd’s story of Eva is clever and harkens to a world of le Carré with its ambiguous relationships and shadowy power plays. He uses a gentler touch with Ruth and breathes life into her world without the underlying thrum of tension and suspense he uses for Eva. The bottom line: a great story with masterful writing.