Wednesday, June 20, 2007

the last book I read

Restless by William Boyd.

I'm a big William Boyd fan, so a new one is a major event. So much so that I was able to ignore the fact that this was a recommendation of Richard & Judy's book club, something which would normally induce me to run away shrieking and cast myself face first into an industrial tile adhesive mixer.

This is the story of two women: Ruth, an English language teacher in Oxford in the 1970s, and Sally, her mother. Sally, it turns out, to her daughter's great surprise, was born Eva Delectorskaya in Russia and was recruited by a shadowy spymaster to the British secret service on the eve of World War II in 1939.

The remainder of the story plays itself out in two parallel strands, the story of Eva's wartime exploits as written out by Sally for her daughter to read, and Ruth's reaction to these writings and their impact on her daily life. It's all brought together at the end, as Sally's motive for finally revealing the truth becomes clear and she enlists Ruth's help for one last mission.

One thing you can always bank on with Boyd is a cracking story, and this is no exception - Eva's story with its inevitable betrayals and double-crossings skips along very readably, all the more so as large chunks of it (in particular, the British Security Coordination's involvement in various espionage operations designed to encourage the USA to enter the war) is based on real events.

That said it's by no means the best thing he's ever written (those would be Brazzaville Beach, The Blue Afternoon and the two pseudo-biographical epics The New Confessions and Any Human Heart) - certain plot strands don't seem to go anywhere, in particular the one involving Ruth's ex-lover (and father of her son), his brother, his slightly mysterious girlfriend and their possible links with German terrorism and the Baader-Meinhof organisation. With its breathless pace it almost reads like Boyd knocked it out in a long weekend, perhaps without bothering to tie up all the loose ends, something you would normally expect a spy novel to do.

There is also the fundamental problem afflicting all epistolary novels, which is that we're required to believe that the ordinary Joes and Josephines who (the plot requires us to believe) write the source material quoted in the book can write to the standard of published novelists. Thus we're asked to believe that Eva/Sally can write with the irresistible narrative drive of William Boyd, just as we're asked (in an earlier post in this series) to believe that Eva Khatchadourian can write like Lionel Shriver. Two Evas - spooky.

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