Restless by William Boyd

by William Boyd
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc in 2006
325 Pages
ISBN 978-0-7475-8837-2

Imagine that your mother has lied to you about an integral part of her life – the time prior to your birth. Imagine that for some strange reason your mother decides to tell you her secret when you are 27 years old, a single mother still working on her thesis at the University of Oxford. And finally imagine that you learn that your mother was – a spy!

That’s the foundation of William Boyd’s excellent novel Restless. Ruth Gilmartin learns during the hot summer of 1976 a lot about her mother Sally, who has been hired by the British Secret Service in 1939 to become a spy in the upcoming world war. And an excellent spy she is, with assignments in Holland, Belgium, and the United States. She is perfect at doing what is requested of her and is always using her instincts to get a job done. Then, in 1941, one assignment goes badly wrong, and she needs to cover her tracks extremely well to escape her own colleagues…

The exciting story of Sally Fairchild unwinds in front of us, gently jumping between past and present. While it takes a few pages for the story to take off, it gains momentum and drama as the reader gets acquainted with the characters, soon steaming at full speed towards a great finish. Both parts of the story – past and present – are crafted well with deep and interesting characters. Ruth is working as teacher for English as foreign language, and so she is used to foreigners. Yet soon the question builds up whether everybody is actually who he says he is? Can Ruth trust anyone? This makes the story of the present as interesting as the story of the past.

There is one drawback for the story, though: Boyd has used several German characters for Ruth’s story of the present, probably to add credibilty to the spy theme and to create an environment of distrust, but all this does not fully add up. Why does Ruth need to have connections into Germany? Why does she allow for dubious German friends to stay in her appartment the whole summer, even if she disapproves it? Why does her son needs to have a German first name? All this is not really necessary and just distracts from the main storyline. Personally, I would have preferred a full focus on Ruth and her mother, and maybe even more insights into the actual work of a spy at wartime. But this remains my only criticism.

All-in-all, the story is captivating and intelligently written. Certainly not your typical spy thriller. A good read.

William Boyd, photographed by Mark Zanzig
William Boyd
Photo: Mark Zanzig/zettpress

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