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Empty promises

Restless A Novel William Boyd Bloomsbury: 328 pp., $24.95

October 01, 2006|Scott Martelle | Scott Martelle, a Times staff writer, is the author of the forthcoming "Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West."

SALLY GILMARTIN seems genuine enough. In the summer of 1976, the British solicitor's widow in her mid-60s is living in a garden cottage a few miles outside Oxford, where her unmarried daughter and 5-year-old grandson have an apartment behind a dentist's office.

But Sally is not whom she claims to be. And in the gathering shadows of age, she is beginning to spy the ghosts of her past. Someone, she believes, is trying to kill her. In hand-scribbled chapters, she begins parceling out her hidden history to the unsuspecting daughter, Ruth, drawing her into a plot to exact revenge for a long-ago betrayal and derail her pursuers.

This is the premise of "Restless," William Boyd's new two-track suspense novel set partly in 1976 and partly during the lead-up to America's entry into World War II. It is the prewar story that propels the action as Boyd, author of the well-received "Brazzaville Beach" and the stellar "Any Human Heart," among others, burrows into London's covert program to goad America to join the war in Europe.

But a novel that begins with a rumination by Proust on the fickle timing of death establishes certain literary ambitions for itself. Although Boyd, a deft and stylish storyteller, has delivered an enjoyable read, a skein of loose threads leaves a nagging sense of unfinished business.

This is a novel that could be, and probably should be, more.

The true story behind Boyd's fiction is intriguing. With Hitler's war machine chewing up the European countryside -- and its planes raining bombs on England -- the British government was desperate to draw the United States in as an ally, hoping its troops and weapons would turn the tide. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was willing, but the American public, 20 years removed from World War I, remained wary of sending another generation to die in Europe.

To change American hearts and minds, the British intelligence services opened a covert operations unit in New York City in 1940 to, among other things, plant fake news stories about German atrocities in hopes of stirring outrage. The project became moot with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Germany's subsequent war declaration, and it quietly faded away.

Against this real-life backdrop, Boyd introduces Eva Delectorskaya, the 28-year-old daughter of a Russian father and English mother who is living in Paris in 1939. She learns that her younger brother has been killed by the Nazis and that he had been acting as a British spy. She reluctantly steps into her brother's shoes when his handler recruits her.

Eva's work takes her to Belgium, the United States and Canada before she returns to England. By then the shadowy world she inhabits has crumbled under the weight of deadly deceits and betrayals in an intriguing and well-executed plot worthy of Graham Greene or Alan Furst. Fearing assassination, Eva becomes Sally Gilmartin and disappears into wartime England, hiding from herself and the past.

More than three decades later, Sally tells the story of her life as Eva in the manuscript she has written for Ruth to explain why she needs help avenging the treachery that sent her underground -- and to make what she believes will be a preemptive strike to save her own life. Ruth reads the installments of her mother's early life between sessions teaching English to foreign students in Oxford and raising her son. She also is hosting her son's paternal uncle and a mysterious woman wanted by the police and who might or might not be linked to West Germany's Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.

This is by far the book's weaker half, reading as though Boyd were seeking a climax to his war story without being fully vested in it. He evokes the English countryside and the urban corners of Oxford and London with a distilling eye, but the secondary characters he peppers throughout the modern plot confuse rather than clarify. And in a seemingly pointless echo, a local cop asks Ruth to spy on foreign students.

There is room in the second half of the story to mine such rich veins as identity and presumption, the willful gullibility inherent in love and the evolution of mother-daughter relationships as both women age. Instead, Boyd evokes the mundane, leaving the novel out of balance. The book begins and ends with Sally/Eva caught up in the fear that someone is trying to kill her, but it's unclear whether that belief is rooted in reality or the percolation of 30 years of deceit.

It's almost as if Boyd created Ruth's world as a diversion, like a magician waving one hand high in the air to distract from the trickery he is committing with the other. But the waving hand keeps the audience's eye too long, and by the end of the book you feel as though the magician has left the stage a few tricks short of a full show. *

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