Monday, August 4, 2014

Not your ordinary spy story

William Boyd's 2006 novel Restless is no ordinary espionage thriller. We can start with the title. That doesn't sound like a spy story. Certainly Robert Ludlum would never have chosen it for one of his books. Even John LeCarre, whose titles don't generally sound like espionage novels either, would have opted for something a little wordier.

Then there's the fact that the story's two major characters are both women, a mother and a daughter. And, although it may be a story about World War II espionage, about half the action takes place in the 1970s, more than 30 years after the war is over.

Finally, the most significant spying that takes place during the novel involves British agents operating  in, of all places, the United States. In 1941, England is desperate for the U.S. to enter the war because they question whether they can defeat Germany, especially if Russia falls. The British spies try to find a way to persuade a reluctant Congress to declare war.

Boyd's novel opens in 1976 when Sally Gilmartin, an Oxfordshire grandmother, reveals to her daughter, Ruth, that her real name is Eva Delectorskaya. Born in Russia, she was recruited by the British Secret Service and trained to be a spy. Ruth, a single mother, has never suspected a thing. Now, all these years later, Sally/Eva believes her life may be in grave danger, and she decides to go on the offensive, with her daughter's help.

Back in 1941, when Eva was operating in the United States, she is nearly killed while on a mission in New Mexico. She believes she was betrayed by a member of her own team, who survives in 1976 and lives as a prominent member of British society. Eva, as Sally Gilmartin, has been in hiding for all these years. Now, remembering all those skills she learned decades before, she decides it's time to go back to work.

The author maintains the same level of inventiveness throughout. If he never reaches the edge-of-your-seat excitement you may find in other thrillers, Boyd never gives his readers reason for thinking they have read something like this before or that they know what is going to happen next.

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