William Boyd: Restless

After giving up on a proof copy of Restless last year, about one-third through, I found my interest in it reinvigorated by all the positive reviews, the Richard & Judy listing, the Costa Novel Award, and of course the half price offer on Amazon…

The story is by now quite well-known: a young English woman discovers that her elderly mother is not a travel writer at all but an alien from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse: or at least a Russian emigré spy who worked for the British secret service during the second world war. I wasn’t hooked from the start – which is probably why I gave up on it before – but I was hooked from about halfway through. It’s all very traditional in a way, which could mean humdrum but Boyd manages to pull off a very interesting story. Like much of his stuff, it’s the immensity of detail and aspect which impressed me in Restless: all aspects of the characters’ lives are explored, and points of narrative interest abound, from the double-historic time frame (2006 novel set in 1976 with flashbacks to 1939-42), the mix of fact and fiction (did the British secret service really work undercover to bluff the Americans into the second world war?), and the simple novelty (for me) of a female protagonist – or two – in a spy story.

The central ‘twist’ is not terribly surprising because it’s so clearly foreshadowed, and the tension of whether Eva Delectorskaya will survive the war is obviously discharged by the knowledge that she is still alive in 1976, but the story still grips and the settings (of the long hot summer in 1976, of wartime Britain when people really didn’t know if their country would survive, and of America at the same time when nobody really cared what was going on across the pond) are well realised. Boyd does not suit all tastes, but for me he’s a reliable source of pleasure.


  1. I have read most of William Boyd’s books and was intrigued to see what Boyd would make of the genre. The result was “good, but ordinary”. The story is well-constructed, but can be a little plodding at times, and I thought it was lacking in atmosphere, and characterisation. However, glad you liked it!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Tom. I genuinely felt it was awash in atmosphere, but agree that it’s far from his best. (For me, and for what it’s worth, that would be Any Human Heart, The New Confessions, and The Blue Afternoon.) However I haven’t read his earlier novels, A Good Man in Africa or An Ice-Cream War.

  3. If I may impose.
    I live in the states.I was trying to see if my blogs were on the search engine.
    The only William Boyd that I knew of was the cowboy.
    Who is this William Boyd from England?
    What kind of books does he write?
    The only reason I ask is because my family is from Scotland.
    Just a little curious.
    Thank you

  4. Hi William, he’s quite well known in the UK but obviously not in the US! It’s hard to define what kind of books he writes as they’re all quite different, but to my mind two of his most successful books are Any Human Heart, which is the lifelong diary of a fictional writer Logan Mountstuart, and The New Confessions, which is the autobiography of a fictional film director. So I suppose in one sense he specialises in recreating lives as fully as possible in entirely fictional form. Some of his other books have exotic settings in Africa and the far east, a little like Graham Greene.

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