Restless by William Boyd is a fascinating novel that exposes the British Security Coordination (BSC), an extensive British covert spy operation aimed at persuading the US to enter World War II. However, this engrossing spy intrigue is hamstrung by non sequitur characters and over-reaching thematic metaphors.
Restless takes place in two time lines: the mid-1970s and early 1940s. The reader joins Ruth Gilmartin as she discovers the mysterious and heretofore unknown past of her mother – Eva Delectorskaya.
The chapters that chronicle Eva’s indoctrination and participation in the BSC are absorbing and suspenseful. Unfortunately, the chapters that follow Ruth’s daily life wind up a disappointment. Her world is populated with a number of characters and plot lines that never connect to the rest of the story. At the end of the novel I simply regarded these passages as unwanted filler. Instead, I wanted three more detailed chapters on Eva and her relationship with Lucas Romer, her BSC mentor.
The activities of BSC agents, the cat and mouse tactics, are what drive Restless. The concept behind the BSC was to use the media to actively bring the US into WWII. The BSC did this by surreptitiously planting fake stories that pointed at Nazi aggression or expansion past Europe. The BSC was an extensive spy network dedicated to information and spin!
Information wasn’t neutral … if it was believed or even half believed, then everything began subtly to change as a result – the ripple effect could have consequences no one could foresee.
In today’s information rich society, particularly in an election year, this theme resonates strongly. The fact that it was taking place 60 years ago is both interesting and frightening given what could be accomplished today.
The other downfall of Restless is Boyd’s seeming need to make the novel about more than just the personal stories that reveal the BSC. Does anyone really know another person? Are we all waiting for the proverbial other shoe (aka death) to drop? These themes and metaphors are a stretch and, frankly, detracted from my enjoyment of the taut spy thriller that was at the core of Restless.
Last but not least, there was no acknowledgment or afterword that told me what parts of the novel were based on fact. Instead I had to search the Internet to find … a fantastic piece Boyd did in The Guardian titled The Secret Persuaders. If only Boyd had used more of this material in Restless!
I’m being hard on Boyd because Restless was good but had the potential to be great. Ladies, don’t be scared away by the idea that this is a nuts and bolts spy story. It isn’t. The main characters are strong women embroiled in a great and sometimes romantic intrigue. Both my wife and I enjoyed Restless by William Boyd, with reservations, and recommend it as good summer reading.