I’ve just read new books by two of my favourite storytellers, writers who write books that sweep you up and take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Along the way you learn something about a craft or a bit of history that you know nothing about. The main characters are flawed yet appealing. The narrative has a clear trajectory, though there is always some mystery, and finishes with satisfying closure. Anyone needing a big fat book to curl up with on an autumn (or spring) evening would do well with either.
One of the two is Restless by William Boyd. I’ve always enjoyed Boyd’s books because he takes a story and tells it WELL. This is the first of his books that I’ve read with female protagonists, and I enjoyed it all the more for that. It tells the story of a Russian emigre to France, Eva Delectorskaya, who becomes a British spy. Eva, now reinvented thirty years on as Sally Gilmartin, breaks the news of her past to her stunned daughter Ruth, and enlists her help in completing a final assignment. The novel swings between Eva’s notes on her role in helping to win hearts and minds for the Allied cause in the US and Ruth’s reaction to her mother’s chilling story.
Boyd is also a scriptwriter and his style is extremely visual:
My mother and I sat on the rear terrace of the cottage, looking out over the blond meadow at the dark green mass of Witch Wood, drinking home-made lemonade and keeping an eye on Jochen, who was galloping around the garden with a butterfly net, failing to catch butterflies.
In my mind I was casting the film: perhaps Kate Winslet as the grumpy single mother Ruth, who is reluctant to play spy for her mother, but becomes captivated as Sally’s story draws her in; maybe Maggie Smith as the increasingly paranoid Eva/Sally; Cate Blanchett as the bold young Eva getting herself into ever more dangerous spirals of deception and intrigue.
Hollywood aside, it’s a great read: thrilling, suspenseful and ultimately very satisfying.
The second novel I have on offer is from one of North America’s wonderful storytellers, John Irving. I adored The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, so wasn’t scared off by his latest book, Until I Find You, which weighs in at a hefty 839 pages in paperback. This tells the story of a son who, like Ruth in Restless, is told a certain version of his parents’ history, only to grow up, go on his own journey and discover another history altogether. And like all John Irving books I have read, it is threaded through with strange sex, excessively colourful characters and meticulous attention to detail.
Little Jack Burns grows up believing he is a feckless sex addict like his organ-playing, tattoo-collecting father, William, who, according to his tattooist mother Alice, abandoned them when Jack was just a baby. Jack spends his early years with his mother wandering the capital cities of Europe trying to track down the elusive William, but eventually they return to Jack’s birth city Toronto, where his mother sends him to school – a girls’ school. Here Jack discovers his talent as an actor and as a magnet for older women. These two skills he later puts to good use developing a career in Hollywood.
When Emma – his best friend, surrogate mother, wrestling partner and sometime sexual abuser – dies, Jack starts to unwind. Maintaining the persona becomes too difficult for him. This is compounded later when Alice dies, and the strands of the tale she has spun him throughout his life about his abandonment by his father come apart. Jack starts to uncover new truths and at the same time, a newer and fresher self.
As always with Irving, this is an odd and dark book, and I would reckon that some of the sex is spurious, but he paints some intensely interesting characters and spares no detail delving into their horribly fascinating psyches. I also learnt a lot about tattooing and organ playing.
If a well-told spy thriller with not one but two female leads grabs you, then Restless is superb, but you want something a little weirder, a little darker but equally well-crafted, then I can strongly recommend a few nights in with Until I Find You.