Monday 7 January 2013

William Boyd's Restless (Bloomsbury, 2006), the 2012 BBC TV Adaptation, and Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Enough with the procrastinatory obfuscation; time to get back into blogging proper, with a 2006 historical espionage novel I was inspired to read last autumn as a result of reading a 2012 historical espionage novel:

Restless by William Boyd, published by Bloomsbury in hardback in the UK in 2006, and bought in first edition by me in Bookworms in Shoreham last summer. Now, my original plan, when I read Restless, had been to read Boyd's most recent novel, Waiting for Sunrise, which was published by Bloomsbury in June of 2012, and which I showcased in signed first in August. But then I went and bought a signed first of this:

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, published by Jonathan Cape not long after Waiting for Sunrise, and dove into that instead. Unfortunately it proved to be a disappointment – at least for me – both as a spy story and as a novel: Serena, the narrator, is a pretty rubbish secret agent, not to mention a rather dreary sort altogether, and though the final reveal does offer an explanation for that, it was all a little too tricksy and self-satisfied for my liking, and ultimately pointless, even given the meta trappings (which are undermined by the presumed complicity of Serena anyway). So, having enjoyed William Boyd's 2009 thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms, and knowing that Restless was, like Sweet Tooth, ostensibly a historical spy novel, I figured I'd give that a go, reasoning that it might act as a kind of palate cleanser (I know: bit weird, but that's how my mind works). And I'm glad I did, because not only did it turn out to be a cracking read – so much so that it ended up in my top ten books I read in 2012 chart – but a few months later, at the end of December, the BBC broadcast a two-part television drama based on the novel, adapted by Boyd himself.

And a pretty good fist he made of it as well, as did director Edward Hall and stars Hayley Atwell – playing Russian-born British World War II spy Eva Delectorskaya – and Rufus Sewell as Eva's handler, Lucas Romer. There's some stilted dialogue, especially early on, but once it gets going the TV Restless does a terrific job translating the subterfuge and set pieces of the novel, notably one exciting sequence where Eva is dispatched by Romer to Holland to witness the supposed defection of a German agent (an episode Boyd based on the real-life Venlo Incident).

Where the adaptation falls down slightly is in its treatment of Eva's daughter, Ruth Gilmartin. The novel alternates between Eva's WWII adventures, which are written in the third person, and Ruth's first-person recollection of the long hot summer of 1976, when her mother revealed to her that she was a spy during the war. Boyd spends quite a bit of time establishing Ruth's character and fleshing out her life: her friendly and amusing relationship with her professor at Cambridge and with the students to whom she teaches English (one of whom becomes infatuated by her); her fraught relationship with her estranged German lover (and his brother), the father of her child. In the adaptation, however, much of this excised – probably to keep the running time down to three hours, which I guess is fair enough (although why Ruth's professor becomes German in the TV version is beyond me); except that as a consequence, the strong, willful, warm Ruth of the novel is reduced to little more than a way of keeping the plot moving.

Still, if you haven't seen the television Restless, don't let that put you off: it has much to recommend it... just not quite as much as the book is all.


  1. I thought the TV adaptation was messy and didn't like it at all. In fact I gave up after the first hour. As you recommend the book, I will give that a try and hope it's better.

  2. Seems there's a difference of opinion in the Jones family... I'm pretty sure you'll like the book though, Mother.

  3. I enjoyed the adaptation - not having read the book yet - MOUNT TBR somewhere.

    I did have McEwan's book on a wishlist but may avoid now - too many books anyway.

    Will have to check in a bit more frequently in 2013 - have a good one Nick,

    Cheers Col

  4. Thanks, Col – and the same to you! Thanks for reading.

  5. I knew that name sounded familiar....

    Probably not the same person.


  6. Ha, no, I think we'd have heard if William Boyd had portrayed Hopalong Cassidy prior to embarking on his writing career.

  7. faithful researcher16 January 2013 at 19:15

    Agree with you about "Sweet Tooth", a soggy, dreary disappointment. The metafictional twist ending makes me think McEwan and his bag of tricks are running on empty.

  8. Mm, I can't say it's left me inclined to read any others of his novels. You never know though.