Restless by William Boyd

20 April 2014
Written by Diana Kenny

Diana Kenny reviews the award-winning Restless, a novel depicting the tale of a young woman who discovers that her mother served as a British spy during WWII


Restless by William Boyd - Winner of the Costa Novel Award 2006

I was no more than a few pages into our current book group offering when I realised that I had a real visual picture of what I was reading and that I must have seen it somewhere.  A quick search on Google revealed that Restless had been made into a TV movie called Restless Miniseries starring Charlotte Rampling, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary herself).

So that niggle satisfied and with only a vague memory of what happened (one advantage of growing older), I read the book over the next couple of days and really enjoyed it.  But the real pleasure came when I started to do some background research for this review and found that what I had read as enjoyable fiction was in fact based on real events.

The novel begins with a call from a mother to her daughter, innocuous enough, but when Ruth Gilmartin arrives at her mother’s remote country address she finds her in a wheelchair, though obviously fit and well and paranoid that she is being watched from the woods behind the house. Ruth of course wonders if this is the beginning of dementia, but her mother hands her a manuscript and asks her to read it.

Over the next few days as she reads the manuscript we are transferred to pre-war Paris and the recruitment of a young Russian émigré woman Eva Delectorskaya to the British Secret Service by the shadowy figure of Lucas Romer. The novel alternates between the stories of Eva, Ruth’s mother who she knows as Sally Gilmartin, and Ruth’s own life in 1970s Britain.  Eva drip-feeds Ruth the events that shaped her character during her war days and gradually she builds up to the climax, which she wishes to share with her daughter.

Eva worked for The British Security Coordination, a secret organisation set up in 1940 by Winston Churchill with the prime target of encouraging America to join the war.  It was also to investigate enemy activity, because of course with a large population of Italian and German citizens there was active support for the Axis powers. 

America at the time seems to have been a potbelly of intrigue and espionage.  There was an agreement between J Edgar Hoover and William Stephenson, head of the British Security Coordination, not to use American citizens as spies but the BSC did just that.  According to the author, William Boyd, there were about 3000 British allied spies active on American soil before the Pearl Harbour attack.

Following her recruitment, Eva is sent to Scotland to prepare - to learn to mask her emotions, trust nobody and to check rigorously every detail.  On completion of her training, Eva and Lucas are sent to Holland where she survives an attack by Nazi spies who snatch two MI6 agents from a café, a story based on a true incident. Further activities are successfully completed and Eva and Lucas are sent to America.

Eva’s job is mainly to plant propaganda stories with minor agencies which, with luck, would be taken up by the main newspapers of the day. A true example of this process was the declaration by US President Franklin D Roosevelt that he had in his procession a secret map of South and Central America, made in Germany by Hitler’s government, with details as to how Hitler proposed to reorganise the area.  This was a “planted” map.

Meanwhile back in 1976 Ruth is coming to terms with her mother’s revelations, being drawn bit by bit into her unimaginable world whilst dealing with her own problems and caring for her son.  When her mother insists that she is being stalked by someone who wants to kill her, Ruth’s reaction is understandable. When she receives some more of the manuscript, her mother’s situation becomes a little clearer.

This is real cloak and dagger stuff; simple missions fail, but why? Team members who seem on the verge of discovering some truth die and after one blotched episode Eva “disappears” to reappear as Sally Gilmartin, devoted wife and mother.  

However once a spy always a spy, always restless because nobody is trustworthy and Eva has plenty of time to work things out, to discover who betrayed them if not why. With the aid of Ruth, Eva confronts her nemesis and the truth is out. We are kept attentive to the end like a good thriller should.

It was interesting to read Boyd’s analysis of the mind of a spy.  Using England’s famous five of Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross, Blunt and Philby he expands on his views as to why they betrayed their country. Of course the beloved country was also working in a murky and ambiguous ethical area which is why so little is known of the dealings of the British Security Coordination and its cover the British Passport Control Office.

The epigraph at the beginning of the book is uncomfortable; it is a quotation from Marcel Proust which starts:
“We may, indeed, say that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say this we think of that hour as situated in a vague and remote expanse of time.” 
And ends with:
“One has no suspicion that death, which has been advancing within one on another plane, has chosen precisely this particular day to make its appearance in a few minutes’ time….”

To which I say enjoy every moment and don’t trust what you read. Truth, after all, is the first casualty of war!