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Monday, 2 June 2014

Book Review: Restless by William Boyd

In 1976 single-mother Ruth is startled to find out that her mother was a British spy during WWII. Eva Delectorskaya tells her daughter the truth about her recruitment and involvement with Lucas Romer, her handler, with the intention of drawing her daughter into the one final assignment she needs to complete. The story is a dual time frame one with Eva's story being written as a manuscript.

I tried hard to enjoy this one but I'm afraid, for the most part, I couldn't. What threw me on every single point of view switch was the skewed way the story was told. If you're dealing with a written manuscript given by a mother to her daughter to read, you'd expect it to be in first-person, wouldn't you? No, it's in third so that Ruth's front-story can be in third person when, really, I don't see any real reason it needs to be. This jarred throughout. Equally, Ruth's own story is rather pointless. Her numerous interactions with people, her pupils etc, are redundant and offer nothing to the plot. The only interactions that are useful are those with her supervisor and colleague that end up aiding the 'real' plot. To be honest, this could easily have been a frame story with Eva's story taking up the bulk of the middle section and Ruth's experiences being condensed into the conclusion where the spy strand is finally wrapped up. As a dual time-frame story, it doesn't work and Ruth is a flat, boring character but perhaps this is just in comparison to her mother.

Eva's story, with the exception of the third-person mess, is much more successful. It simmers, exploding at several points, and it was intriguing to witness the spy tricks she put into practice. My complaint about this is that the preparation takes a long time from recruitment to actual danger but, again, this was an overall structural problem. The tension in the last quarter of the spy narrative made up for the glacial speed of the rest. It was only when I hit this point that I stopped thinking about the niggles I had in terms of structure and began enjoying the anxiety of the plot.

I fully concede this was probably a matter of personal preference. I prefer more characterisation - even in thrillers - and once I'd realised how irritating the viewpoint problem was to me it was difficult to shake it off. I do wonder if there's something profound I'm missing, having looked at all the glowing reviews, but I'll just chalk it up to bad experience and say this was a book I didn't get on with.

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