Magazine article The Spectator

Spies in Oxford

Magazine article The Spectator

Spies in Oxford

Article excerpt

RESTLESS by William Boyd Bloomsbury, £17.99, pp. 325, ISBN 0747585717 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

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 prePearl 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 ultracareful description and rich visual language, while remaining within the bounds of his narrator's voice. …

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