Thursday, 28 November 2013

Restless by William Boyd

published 2006   section set in 1976



I made a bit of an effort for Hamid, though my heart wasn’t really in it. I rather relished these rare evenings alone but I washed my hair and put on some dark grey eyeshadow. I was going to wear my platform boots but didn’t want to tower over him so I settled for some clogs, jeans and an embroidered cheesecloth smock. My burn-dressing was less conspicuous now – under the cheesecloth of the smock it formed a neat lump the size of a small sandwich. While I waited for him I set a kitchen chair outside on the landing at the top of the stairs and drank a beer. The light was soft and hazy and dozens of swifts jinked and dived above the treetops, the air filled with their squeakings like a kind of semi-audible, shrill static.
Hamid arrived, wearing a dark suit and a tie. He said I looked ‘very nice’ though I could tell he was a little disappointed.






observations: This was a promising enough concept: a daughter who finds that her mother had an unknown secret life as a spy, and that this life might just be coming to catch up with her. The narrative switches between mother and daughter, between the Second World War and 1976. It’s an intriguing idea, but I didn’t think it worked. Firstly, Boyd just didn’t seem to be that good at doing a woman’s perspective, so to have two females as main characters was a mistake. The summer of 1976 was memorable: hot and atmospheric, but he makes nothing of that. There is a history don at All Souls with a computer on his desk (in 1976? no) and photocopied photos being used for ID (no – photocopying was still quite rare, and photos were unrecognizable). 

Above, the narrator mentions a burn on her shoulder – this happens in a very bizarre and unconvincing incident involving a teapot and a bath, but there seems to be no reason for it at all. I am used to proper thrillers – where everything is point, or at least potential point - and I wrongly assumed her clumsiness was a clue: perhaps she was going blind? But the whole of the modern section, really, led to nothing. And her childhood was odd: one sentence implies that the house she lived in was grand and big enough to have a ‘library’, but nothing else would lead you to think that.

Meanwhile, the sections in the war were more intriguing, but involved the mother being trained to a very high degree as a top-level spy, and then being sent to write fake news stories in an office – she just didn’t seem to have any need for the training we all enjoyed reading about, or else she was being wasted on her job. And really, it was hard to get worked up about the importance or jeopardy involved in fake news stories, try though he did….

There were other things wrong: at a vital moment a contact ‘thought for a bit and then said, ‘Amsterdam?’’ But later Eva says ‘He had said ‘Amsterdam’ instantly, confidently, sure that this was the answer she expected.’ Well both those things can’t be true, and we never really got to the bottom of what happened. The child has ‘a fritter of pencils and wax crayons around him’ – what does this mean? The lights in a restaurant are like ‘albescent moons’: this is just affectation – albescent means ‘becoming white’, so it adds nothing to the description.

If the book had been exciting and compelling I probably would have made less of these issues: boredom brings out the inner pedant.

The picture is from a 1976 fashion magazine. More fiction set in 1976 tomorrow.

10 comments:

  1. I have this on the pile waiting for me, as well as many other Boyd books. I did enjoy the TV adaptation of this which either aired earlier this year or late last.
    I'm toying with setting myself a personal espionage challenge for next year, so Boyd may get an airing if I do....plus Fleming, Rimington, Greene, etc etc

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    1. If the adaptation were ever repeated I would probably watch it, just for interest. Espionage sounds like a good theme for you - I'll be interested to hear your verdict on Rimington, I've wondered whether to try her books....

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  2. Moira - Sorry to hear that this one didn't work for you. It really is an absolutely fascinating concept for a novel and it's a shame it didn't pan out for you. I think I'd be really bothered by those anachronistic slips too. Hmm.... I think I'll give this a miss, at least for the moment. Great analysis of it though as ever.

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    1. I know lots of people like this book, just not to my taste. And there are so many books in our TBR piles, we don't need extra ones!

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  3. Interesting. The concept of the book does sound good. Too bad it did not work out. I don't know much about this author at all.

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    1. He's best known at the moment for having written the new James Bond book - which I wouldn't be reading whoever wrote it...

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  4. I was very disappointed by this book too. It should have been good, but... And you're so right about two women as main characters - a good thing in the right hands (eg Borgen on the telly), but not in this book.

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    1. Yes - I have a slight qualm about criticizing, at least he was trying to have women characters, which so many male authors don't. But then, he doesn't need my praise... (I did say his salad dressing was quite nice in an earlier entry.)

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  5. Oh dear, I loved this book. But then I do love a good spy story.

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    1. I did wish I'd liked it more! I know lots of people did....

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