I have liked William Boyd’s recent novels, so I picked up this one published in 2006. I liked it as much as any.
William Boyd’s Restless (336 pages, Bloomsbury, $14.95) is billed as an historical thriller, and it does a wonderful job of playing two historical periods against each other.
The “present” of the novel is 1976, and Ruth Gilmartin, who is pursuing a doctorate in History at Oxford, is a frustrated and seemingly paranoid mother who lives deep in the Oxfordshire countryside and imagines that someone is lurking in the woods beyond her garden.
Ruth is busy enough raising a young son and trying to cope with a full docket of ESL students. Her time is so full, in fact, that she has little time for writing her Ph.D. thesis. But then when is that not true.
Anyway, Ruth is just about at the end of the tether with her seemingly demented mother, when the older woman hands her a document that turns out the be the account of her life as a spy, first in Europe and then in England and the United States.
Ruth can hardly believe that her mother, Sally Gilmartin, is the Eva Delectorskaya whom she reads about in the narrative. Even harder to believe is the harrowing account of wartime espionage and betrayal, as Eva Delectorskaya becomes Eve Dalton and eventually the Mrs. Sally Gilamartin that Ruth knows as her mother.
As Sally’s narrative is fed to Ruth in small bits, it becomes increasingly engaging. When Eva is recruited by a handsome British spy, she falls in love and has an intermittent affair, even as her situation becomes scarier and more threatening.
While we read about wartime Europe and the double-crosses of the Second World War, Ruth is still coping with her son, his estranged father in Germany, that man’s brother who comes to visit and brings all sorts of complications including his girlfriend. And then there are also her students, who are importuning in various ways and even have the temerity to fall in love with her.
One of these narratives is meant to comment on the other, but at times it is hard to decide in which direction the commentary flows. What is clear, though, is that Ruth becomes so caught up in her mother’s story that she is ready to play a part in it before the curtain falls.