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Book Review: “Restless” by William Boyd

 

A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews (I can easily find out a synopsis on Amazon or Goodreads) so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

“Restless”, William Boyd

 A great spy novel featuring a female spy! If I had to rate it, I think this novel falls somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. It’s an intriguing book- in fact, I couldn’t put it down over the past two days- but it’s not a deep character study, so I would warn you first to not expect a roller coaster ride of emotion with this one.But it can be quite thrilling. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that it’s about the very nature of spying and processing the world through a set of hyper-observant eyes. The book is partially set in WWII in various locales, so we are not dealing with high-tech gadgets or large-scale espionage tactics involving super computers, drones, or anything remotely complicated or technical. No, in this case, the humans themselves are hardwired to play cloak and dagger against the enemy using their own wits and extensive espionage training. This is where the thrilling comes into play. I was captivated by Boyd’s lengthy descriptions of Eva going through her daily routine of losing “shadows”, identifying “crows”, and just how precisely she was programmed to notice the minute details most of us miss. Considering the main story is set in the pre-digital age, and even the secondary story involving her daughter is set in the 1970s, it is actually refreshing to read a novel about people constantly seeking information using every other tool available (mostly their brains) besides the Internet and a cell phone. Yes, people: it CAN be done!

I have never read an Ian Fleming “James Bond” novel from the late fifties/early sixties (and I’m assuming the films took liberties), but I imagine that actual British Intelligence agencies and the act of espionage were quite similar to what is described in “Restless”. Lots of paper pushing, lots of seemingly meaningless messages sent back and forth, lots of code and double speak, but very little danger. When Eve does finally encounter a dangerous event, it appears to happen quite logically and her escape is entirely plausible. Nothing resembling James Bond here with massive explosions or an exhaustive supply of near-deaths. Now the novel takes an interesting turn and the true espionage begins: who sold her out? Who is the “ghost” (or double-agent) who sent her to her demise? Where can she run? And how can she out-smart the very agency that created her? In other words, a classic spy novel through and through.

Would I want to live my life this way- constantly looking over my shoulder and unable to trust another living soul? Absolutely not, and here is where the novel gets less exciting. The author had the opportunity to dive into the inner lives of Eva and her daughter Ruth after she learns about her mother’s double life, but he always stops short of any real depth. The secondary story involving Ruth and her potential Muslim lover, Hamid, lacks any sort of believability because Ruth herself is not very lovable or interesting. We just don’t know very much about her to really care. I liked the love story between Eva and Romer, but it has no ending or closure. She finally confronts him after years of living undercover and she doesn’t even bother to ask, “Did you ever truly love me?” I think that if I were the woman who obsessed over a man I later discover was my would-be assassin, the thought would cross my mind and I would want to know the truth.

The dynamic between mother and daughter also could have been better explored. The author has Eva say repeatedly to Ruth, “You just don’t get it, do you? Even after all that you’ve learned?” and it drove me nuts because why WOULD Ruth understand her mother’s life? Ruth herself has not lived 40+ years as a trained spy who changed identities and has been living under cover for most of her life. Here the relationship and the circumstances surrounding both of the two women and the lives they lead could have been flushed out with greater care. Perhaps this is why Eva was never a loving or affectionate mother? Perhaps this is why Ruth has always mistrusted confiding in others? I saw plenty of opportunities for the author to explore these paths, but he never really does. Ruth doesn’t seem to carry many emotions about the discovery of her mother’s double life. It bothers her, yes, but she never gets either truly angry or truly sad and devastated. She just merely accepts it all, and we get no sense of conflict between the two of them. Eva, on the other hand, is an extraordinary character: she is a woman who is taught to discount her own feelings, even when they seem inescapable. Boyd chooses to not go into too much detail about her inner struggle as a woman in love with a man she can’t ever love openly due to her occupation, so in the end we are left with a rather two-dimensional, albeit intriguing, person.

So why would I ultimately highly recommend this book? Because I haven’t read anything in a while that has kept me so glued to the page to the very end. I only peeked a couple of pages ahead ONCE and that says a lot for me! Yes, it’s not the greatest piece of literature I’ve ever read and it’s certainly not well rounded, but it is different from I usually read in the genre and features a female character in a power position without being defined as “crazy” or “psychotic”, and we need more books out there featuring strong women. This book will also appeal to you if you are a mystery genre fan, but want to branch out a bit (the novel is not quite a mystery, yet not exactly a spy thriller but somewhere in between). And if you are a fan of British fiction, you will also enjoy: Boyd can be dry and aloof, but he also has a great sense of humor where appropriate.

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