Sunday, October 29, 2006

An Unexpected Spy Novel

William Boyd’s new novel, Restless, is a historical spy novel, a curious departure for him, but similar to Any Human Heart and The New Confessions (scroll down) in that it reconstructs a biography of a fictional historical character, as if that character were writing his or her autobiography. In this case, the character is Eva Delectorskaya, a former spy for the U.K. before and during the Second World War. Her daughter, Ruth Gilmartin, knows nothing of her mother’s past until 1976, when her mother explains that her identity and past are a complete fiction. Eva has written an autobiography and is feeding it to Ruth one chapter at a time. The action switches between Eva’s wartime memoir and the “present.” In 1976, Eva seems to believe someone is after her for what she did way back then. But we don’t know why that should be (as it isn’t revealed in her memoir until later in the book), so there is a sense of possible menace (or is it merely paranoia?) combined with a mystery. This is an amazingly contrived structure, but because the past and present stories are so interesting, I am willing to overlook it.

What amazes me, though, is that Boyd is repeating almost the exact same structure as he did in The New Confessions—the autobiography alternating with increasingly paranoid episodes set in the present. The characters and plot of the two books are quite different, but this similarity in structure is striking, as are the peripatetic travels of the protagonists. Boyd likes taking his English characters (or Russian-English, in the case of Eva) and sending them on American road trips.

I don’t fault Boyd for using this structure again. (Maybe a little for the contrivance of the doled-out memoir, but that’s ok.) So much of his work is about how a relatively ordinary present can be the result of a highly improbable past. Ruth worries briefly that her mother’s current paranoia and weird acts are a sign of mental or neurological illness (as this happened to her father before he died). But even though Eva’s fears seem to have been unfounded, we discover over the course of the novel that they were anything but irrational.

A subplot has Ruth very tangentially involved with someone who she believes might have been involved with the Baader-Meinhof Gang. This parallels Eva’s fears, and I think is meant to show that the kind of crazy situation Eva was in could happen to the most ordinary person (Ruth), and that it is easy to jump to paranoid conclusions.

This was a totally enjoyable novel—not quite up to my favorite, The New Confessions, but certainly equal to Stars and Bars and The Blue Afternoon. I wonder how much of the scenario Boyd lays out is true—or at least plausible.

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