Spy Story: A Review of William Boyd’s Restless

March 21, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 2 2 min read

coverWhen I picked up Restless, I expected the usual array of smart, twisted, unfortunate and hilarious characters that traditionally abound in William Boyd novels. I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw instead.

Boyd, it seems, opted for a new genre in his last novel. Restless is a mystery that unfolds in a series of letters provided by an aging mother to a confused daughter. Ruth, a single mom and struggling PhD candidate at Oxford, is in a rut. Her inability to make decisions affecting her life and desire to be a good mother create an inescapable conflict and further plunge her to despair.

Now, imagine for a second that you are 28 years old and your mother, a frail old British woman who lives in peace tending her garden at a countryside home, sits you down and says: “I used to be a spy, someone is trying to kill me on unfinished business, you will help me get that person.” That’s what happens to Ruth.

And thus the reader is drawn into a historic journey beginning in the 1930s and ending in the late 1970s. Intertwined with Ruth’s thesis and her professors is the beginnings of her mother Sally Gilmartin’s career. And while the daughter struggles to find emotional satisfaction, the mother’s emotions are being abused. Whereas Ruth battles modern day evils attacking the individual, Sally is busy spreading misinformation in New York to draw the U.S. into World War II, being chased by Nazi spies and suspecting her own comrades in the fight against Hitler and communists.

And of course there are the Boyd antics: Ruth’s son Jochen’s German father’s brother settles in her house announced; his anarchist girl follows; a student of hers falls in love with her and she fails to handle the situation delicately, and so on. In the meantime, the young Sally is hopping from France to England, Belgium, the U.S. and Canada.

Boyd’s spy world makes for a read accurately captured in the title: restless. And although I missed the absurd histrionics of the writer in his latest work, a trace of wry humor lingers in the book and the piecemeal narrative tying past and future is, simply put, entertaining and gripping. As with all other Boyd novels I read, Restless left me thinking, really, is this the end, can’t I have some more, please?

breathes, eats, drinks, sleeps, reads, writes and works in New York. He also reports Live from Gybria. To maintain his sanity, Emre looks for stories in daily life and books. Should that fail, he orders Chinese food and watches the mind-numbing box.


  1. I thought it was a bit contrived how the mother doled out her life story in tantalizing chunks for the daughter. Also, did you notice that Boyd uses one of his favorite structures in this story? That having a character tell his or her own life story in some kind of memoir, usually with present-day episodes as well. See The New Confessions, for example.

  2. I haven't read any of Boyds'work but I'm always looking for a spin on espionage novels. Thanks for sharing this piece I plan on reading it.

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