Restless, by William Boyd

Doubled agents and reflected glories

Patrick Gale
Friday 01 September 2006 00:00 BST

Since the success of Brazzaville Beach, William Boyd has enjoyed a reputation as a male novelist who understands women and writes believably from a female viewpoint. Given that women hold up rather more than half the sky as novel-buyers, the reputation has undoubtedly proved useful. With Restless, he enters the female-friendly territory that has already rewarded Sebastian Faulks so richly: the wartime thriller featuring a resourceful woman in peril.

The novel's central story is indeed thrilling. Eva Delectorskaya is the clever daughter of family of Russian émigrés in 1930s Paris. The family is in mourning for Eva's charming brother, inexplicably murdered on the doorstep of a right-wing meeting. She is approached - wooed, effectively - by the dapper Lucas Romer, who wants her to leave her shipping company to work for his mysterious British organisation against the Nazi threat. He convinces her with the revelation that her brother worked for him, and died in the line of duty.

Eva is trained in espionage techniques in a sort of spies' boarding school in Scotland - in one of the most successful sections - then put to work in Romer's London agency, using a sophisticated network to feed false stories into the news networks in the hope of damaging enemy confidence. She risks her life, spying on a betrayed anti-Hitler conspiracy, then is moved to New York where Romer's organisation uses similar propagandist means to convince America to join Britain in the war.

She surrenders to her fascination with her Mephistopheles and they embark on a secret affair. He effectively prostitutes her in the name of duty and sends her on a mission to New Mexico, where she is betrayed and faces liquidation until she puts her training and a sharp pencil to stomach-churning use. Suddenly, she can trust nobody and must flee across a perilous American landscape.

However, Boyd was never going to deliver a thriller that wasn't also literary. To that end he risks setting his espionage story within a second story set in 1970s Oxford. When her indomitable widowed mother starts monitoring the woods around her house, claiming someone is trying to kill her, quietly radical single mum Ruth assumes she is becoming senile. But then, in a clunking structural device, her mother hands her, piecemeal, the manuscript of Eva's story and claims it is her own. She needs Ruth's help in a potentially dangerous mission...

The title clearly refers not just to the spy's unquiet life but to a certain sort of woman, too independent for marriage, too clever for a traditional career, too bolshie to settle for safety. Ruth's recent life has taken her into the heart of radical student politics in Germany, and it seems that the tentacles of the Baader-Meinhof gang are reaching out to threaten her quiet life.

Instead of being interestingly established as a 1970s counterpart to her courageous mother, and granted a story of equal dramatic weight, she and her promising material become nothing more than padding for an oddly unsatisfactory denouement. It cannot have been cheap for Bloomsbury to lure Boyd away from Penguin; they could surely have afforded an editor with sufficient courage to tell him that the acquisition needed another draft.

Patrick Gale's latest novel is 'Friendly Fire'

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