01 October 2009

Restless (William Boyd)

This was a very tolerable read. I know that sounds lukewarm but it's actually quite positive compared to the review I was composing in my head before I had even started William Boyd's Restless. This is because it came out at around the same time as Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies. I detested The Brooklyn Follies and because Boyd's novel had the unfortunate luck to come out in the same month they are now intrinsically linked in my mind.*

Nonetheless, I was moved to pick it up the other day from a box of books advertised for 50p in Clapham. I came away feeling most pleased with myself, having grabbed Helen Garner's The Spare Room, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and something else I have now forgotten the name of. The universe, it seems, was telling me to read Restless.

As I've already said, not a bad read at all. Instead of the cosmopolitan mid-life crisis I was expecting I was pleasantly to find that it was actually a WW2 espionage 'thriller'. I say 'thriller' because the action/adventure part was a bit geriatric. The most exciting thing that happens is a Mexican policeman gets stabbed in the eye with a pencil.
As a relatively anxious person I don't look normally head for the thriller section of a bookshop. If I'm going to be scared I want it to be supernatural so I know there's absolutely no chance whatsoever it could actually happen to me. So I'm not complaining that this didn't have me cowering in terror from the shadows in my loft. I'm just being pedantic and saying that Time Out's comment that it is "heart-stoppingly exciting" would indicate that the reviewer didn't actually read the book.

I particularly liked the way the novel was structured- in ambience as well as tense. The story switches between a young woman who is recruited by the British Secret Service at the beginning of WW2 and her daughter, decades later, whom she enlists to help settle old ghosts. Eva Delectorskaya as an old woman fearing her past demons adds a surreal menace to the text. As the reader I had trouble believing that anyone would actually go after a grandmother who spends all of her time gardening. It is her rising paranoia rather than any actual events which propel the drama along.

Boyd's main problem seems to be his inability to adopt the female mindset and write, realistically, from the point of view of women. Ruth (the daughter) is strong and independent but comes across as cold, which I don't feel is at all deliberate on Boyd's part. Eva as the young, beautiful spy is a mere caricature, sort of like a particularly intelligent Bond girl. Had Boyd managed to inflate these characters into a three-dimensional state the novel could have been quite a bit better. As it stands, it is merely a non-trashy historical fiction novel with some mildly exciting action halfway through.

Rating: 7/10.

* I THINK. I could be wrong and they came out at completely different times. Maybe their covers are the same colour.
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