William Brett

Spies in Oxford

Text settings


William Boyd

Bloomsbury, pp. 325, £

Spy fiction, or ‘spy-fi’, has its specialist practitioners, but big literary names have also turned to the genre for their own varied purposes. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American springs to mind, as does Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a fictionalised study of the CIA. But where these two literary spy thrillers struggle to shed the suspicion of political motivation, William Boyd’s Restless instead does what all his novels do. It informs us a little about what humans are like.

In the sweltering English summer of 1976, Sally Gilmartin gives her daughter a manuscript describing her secret past life as Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian émigrée and British spy during the first few years of the second world war. This manuscript forms half of the novel, with the other half telling, in alternating chapters, the story of Ruth’s life in Oxford as an academic coming to terms with her mother’s history. The stories dovetail seamlessly towards the end, thanks to Boyd’s narrative control. But Ruth’s realisation that she knows little about the people close to her is the only theme of any note to emerge from her side of the story. Eva’s activities in pre-Pearl Harbor America, on the other hand, are fascinating.

The technicalities of espionage have captivated readers and cinema-goers for decades, and Restless will not disappoint spy-fi fans. Eva is involved in ‘persuading’ America to join the war by planting false news stories, infiltrating the White House and publishing fabricated maps. She is double-crossed, of course, and goes on the run. She has a torrid affair with her spymaster, the talented and charming Lucas Romer. She uses code regularly, and pulls off a quadruple bluff. In other words, she does all the things that spies are supposed to do. Her narrative also makes use of a smart trick — it is Eva’s manuscript that we are reading, and her training as a spy makes her observe and record every detail. So Boyd is able to employ his screenwriter’s talent for constructing a scene through ultra-careful description and rich visual language, while remaining within the bounds of his narrator’s voice. In fact, much of the novel reads like a prose version of a promising screenplay. Given Boyd’s propensity for screenwriting, Restless is almost certainly coming to a cinema near you.

The novel, like much of Boyd’s work, is playful when it comes to narrative voice. Eva thinks Ruth is ‘a much better writer’ than herself, but Ruth’s writing style is laden with cliché and unnecessary embroidery. This serves to make Eva’s sparse, descriptive style more powerful by contrast. Boyd’s previous work has often used the diary format and other first-person vehicles, and he is skilled at inhabiting characters. In Restless, he has dared to write half a novel as a female spy, and half as her pretentious daughter. Unfortunately, Ruth’s story is not meaty enough to allow the reader to forgive her quietly irritating patter.

Despite their glaringly different writing styles, Ruth and Eva have something in common beyond blood — they have both responded to pain by closing down emotionally. It is Eva’s brother’s death that propels her into the world of espionage, and Ruth lives an emotionally stunted life in Oxford with her five-year-old son, born from a loveless relationship with a German anarchist. They both react to adversity with a similarly unconvincing toughness that belies their sadness. This provides an engaging tension between the narratives that both Ruth and Eva present and the truths that Boyd is hinting at. Their emotional lives are ambiguous, complex and ultimately hidden. Boyd’s sensitivity and great control only allow us to snatch glimpses of their feelings and motivations, as if he knows as little about them as they do about each other.

And this is his point, I think. Boyd, as a novelist who must make his own beloved characters speak and live convincingly, is hyper-aware of the fact that we do not truly know even our closest acquaintances. Restless illustrates this universal ignorance unflinchingly. But it also provides all the excitement and intrigue that one might expect from a spy novel. It is a noteworthy example of what can happen when literary novelists turn to genre fiction.