The below review is of William Boyd's Restless. He will be making a rare New York appearance, to read from this new novel, tomorrow. The reading will take place at 7pm at 192 Books (192 10th Ave at 21st St).

2006_10_arts_boyd.jpgWhat is it about spies? Perhaps it’s the guise of normalcy, that the man next to you on the subway is carrying the Financial Times as a signal, or that the overturned trash can is really a dead drop. Perhaps it’s the sense of quiet and prolonged deception – not grand gestures of the Bondian sort but a lifetime of secrets and superiority.

Whatever it is, we cannot get enough of espionage and its champions or its victims. In William Boyd’s new novel, Restless, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. The story is told on a split screen – Ruth Gilmartin is a single mother in the restless 1970’s, struggling to finish a degree at Oxford and find out what’s troubling her mother, Sally. Only Sally isn’t really the quiet Home Counties widow she seems. The flip side of the story is Sally’s carefully penned autobiography, that she hands to her daughter in tempting intervals – the story of Eva Delectorskaya, Russian émigré to France who trains and spies for British Intelligence at the starting guns of WWII. With every chapter of Ruth’s life, we then slide into the shadowed days of the early 1940’s.

Eva is recruited by Lucas Romer, the charasmatic spymaster who’d been running her brother, Kolia, before he’d been killed. Romer trains her to work in his department, AAS Ltd., whose shadowy role is to use the media and communication lines to tempt reticent America into the war in Europe, fighting against the currents of Yankee isolationists. Trained in tradecraft and safe housing, and a natural with her intellect and memory, Eva starts what’s almost a predictable sexual affair with Romer. Once in New York on a delicate leash from BI, AAS starts planting Nazi “maps” for domination of Latin America to rustle up hysteria, and the story turns dark and surprising from there. Ruth follows along with every chapter, as she struggles to understand her mother and the paranoia and unrest that has plagued her every step from the war until now.

Eva Delectorskaya’s story is gripping and well-written, with the decidedly meta task of making it sound plausibly written by the character that Boyd himself has invented, the aging Sally Gilmartin. This isn’t easy to achieve, and it only adds shimmering depth to Eva’s progression from naïve but intelligent émigré to hardened and haunted shadow. Because of course, we know from the very beginning that something went wrong – Sally is finally revealing Eva’s story to her daughter because Sally is convinced that the shadows have returned.

Which, of course, is where Ruth and her narrative come in, and where the story weakens considerably. Ruth’s story has its strengths – for one, it’s written to contrast strongly against Eva, with a touch of modern cynicism and a lightness of an untroubled life. Secondly, it’s even funny in parts. And, obviously, it’s unique. In the pantheon of spy novels, any new trick is commendable. Revealing the truth to Ruth brings an old story into the present.

But somehow, the urgency of the present – Sally’s paranoia that the mistakes and betrayals of the past have come to claim their victim – doesn’t hold a candle to the taut suspense of the past. Sally is afraid of flitting shadows, but Eva had real monsters around each dark corner, and the foggy uncertainty of sleepy Oxfordshire never quite rises to the knife-sharp drama of wartime. Even in Eva’s subtle transformation into a spy, there is singing tension: “It was as if the nervous circuits in her brain had been altered, as if she’d been rewired, […] she understood now with almost distressing clarity, that for the spy the world and its people were different than they were for everybody else.”

So in contrast, even the minor drama of discovering that your mother was once a critical wartime spy doesn’t really have quite the zing. You can’t help but hope something dramatic will happen, more dramatic that attending a rally against the Shah in Iran, or being friends with German revolutionaries, which are Ruth’s only legacies to her mother’s life of danger. Ruth, perhaps, is questioning her purpose in the final chapter of her mother’s story, and I’m not sure Boyd ever unravels that.

Regardless, the story is worth its accolades for the piercing story of Eva alone, and that’s certainly not done injustice by the foggier layers of the present. And, ultimately, we love spy stories because they’re so unlike our own lives, and yet touch down subtly in every arena that us mere mortals stumble through.