William Boyd is one of those rare writers you can trust to turn in a taut and thrilling plot while paying attention to the fine craft of writing. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant and his characters multi-faceted. So it is with Restless, first published in 2006, and later dramatised by the BBC.
The story spans two eras, the most recent taking place during the heatwave of 1976 as Ruth visits her mother, Sal, in the Cotswolds and finds cause for alarm. Sal is showing paranoid behaviour to the point of pretending she needs a wheelchair. She hands her daughter a packet with the start of her memoir, detailing events going back to 1939 and her recruitment into Britain’s secret service.
I can see what the BBC saw in Restless. It’s got a lot going for it and not just pleasant locations which would look attractive on the small screen: Oxford in the heatwave of 1976; Scotland (where Eva has secret agent training and changes her name); London during the blitz; New York in winter; and New Mexico and even Paris get a look-in too.
It has attractive characters: Eva has an element of the femme fatale about her while being smart enough to get out of some truly desperate situations. Daughter Ruth, who is independent, brave and intelligent, is just the person to act on her mother’s behalf. But she’s rebellious too – a single parent who teaches English to foreign students, she also attends a protest rally and happily lies to the police.
And that’s important. Eva learns pretty early on from her enigmatic spymaster (and later, lover) Lucas Romer, never to trust anyone. This advice is vital for Eva’s survival as an agent, but also makes the story interesting for the reader/viewer. Just who do we trust? Who is lying? Who is behind the leaks to the Russians?
The other interesting thing about the book is that Eva is part of a team who runs a news agency supplying stories and embroidering them to encourage the US to join the war. Propaganda in other words. Jumping forward to Ruth in 1976, here she’s coping with a student falling in love with her and the appearance of her son’s dodgy German uncle. These scenarios are interesting enough, then Boyd throws in sudden bursts of suspense.
There is just so much to enjoy in this book, which it seemed everyone I knew had already read. That book’s really good, they’d say. And yes, they were right. What more can I say? Four out of five from me.