Book vs Adaptation: RESTLESS by William Boyd

The book

RestlessBoydAudioThere are quite a lot of, to me, bafflingly breathtaking reviews of 2006′ RESTLESS floating around the web. This won’t be one of those.

It reminded me of a favourite Monty Python sketch. Alas not the dramatic one in which a valiant Knight loses all his limbs but fights on claiming “it’s only a flesh wound“.  Rather the one which starts with Michael Palin doing a voice overJune the 4th, 1973, was much like any other summer’s day in Peterborough, and Ralph Melish, a file clerk at an insurance company, was on his way to work as usual when… (da dum!) Nothing happened!” The sketch only goes for 2 minutes. RESTLESS clocks in at 10 hours, 21 minutes in audio format but is almost as equally devoid of drama as the Python sketch. If it hadn’t been for the quite delightful Rosamund Pike narration keeping me company while I did housework I don’t imagine I’d have bothered to finish.

The elevator pitch for the book is a good one. Not surprisingly. I presume that’s what sold it to Boyd’s publishers. It tells the story of Eva Delectorskaya; a Russian born woman who was recruited to work as a British spy in the lead-up to and during WWII. Her main work was in releasing various forms of propaganda, most notably of the kind designed to entice the US to enter the war. We learn of this story as it is told – in written form – to Eva’s adult daughter Ruth in 1976. Prior to reading the story Ruth knew her mother as Sally Gilmartin, the slightly eccentric widow of an Irish-born lawyer. Ruth’s present day as a single mother, world’s laziest PhD student and English language tutor unfolds in an intertwining fashion with her mother’s story.

I’ll deal with the easiest to explain problem first. Ruth’s story is mostly unnecessary. I have reason to believe Boyd agrees with me given his screenplay for the adaptation (see below) and I just wish his editors had done the same when it comes to the book. Even the actual drama that befalls her – the discovery that her mother is an entirely different person from the one she thought she knew – manages to get lost amidst the endless, pointless details of Ruth’s life of teaching lessons, unwelcome house guests and enough events to prove the author had done some research about life in 1976. Ironically there is a running gag that Ruth spends a lot of time reading about the goings-on of a very dull family in the books she uses with her language students and I couldn’t help but think that Ruth’s own story was providing equally dull fodder. As a character Ruth does not seem realistic. Her reactions to everything – her mother’s revelations, the discovery the her son’s uncle is a porn actor or learning there is no milk for tea – are all about the same. The small role she plays in the final act of her mother’s life of spying (Sally determines that her old lover must be sought out and questioned) is necessary to the novel’s overall narrative purpose but the rest is…filler.

Eva (or Sally’s) story should have been more interesting. Her brother dies horribly (this is the event that prompts her recruitment to the security services), she attends spy school in Scotland, goes to Belgium and then the US as an active spy enduring a couple of genuinely scary incidents and embarks on a love affair with her mysterious boss. For reasons I still can’t really explain however none of this is actually interesting in the telling. It somehow comes off as just a list of events rather than a look into a person’s life…reading more like a dull history text than a dramatic novel. Neither Eva nor Lucas (her spy master and lover) engaged me any more than Ruth and I simply didn’t care what happened to any of them.

In a short author interview at the end of the audio edition of the novel William Boyd claims that he wanted to explore the notion of whether or not a spy could ever fully leave their life behind them. Would they, he was apparently trying to ponder, always be restless after their life of tension? I think that would have been a great theme to explore I just don’t think this book did so. We learn almost nothing of Eva’s life between 1942 and 1976 except that she managed to give no hint to either her husband or only child of her ‘other life’ during those decades so it seems she did manage to forget – or at least – ignore that part of her life very well. She rekindles her spy craft quickly enough when she senses trouble in her present day but I didn’t get any feeling at all that she’d been hankering, restlessly, for a return to this life during all the years of abstinence. There’s a very brief exposure of the kind of restlessness I imagine Boyd was thinking of at the end but it’s not enough to account for the lack of it until that point.

The adaptation

RestlessDVDWilliam Boyd is credited as the sole screenwriter for the 2-part TV miniseries that aired first in the UK in 2012. Perhaps his choice not to include much of Ruth’s story was based only on having less time available to tell his story but I have to wonder whether he also realised what a mistake it had been to include so much of it in the original tale. Of course it’s much more likely that’s just me projecting. Whatever the reason, the adaptation has a better narrative arc because of it. Without the tedium of Ruth’s dull days it is easier to focus on the genuine drama of Eva’s career as a spy and its complicated, tension-packed resolution. The adaptation does follow this part of the story very closely, though there is one significant departure that still makes no sense to me.

The cast is a good one. Hayley Atwell and Charlotte Rampling share the role of Eva and between bring as much life as possible into the somewhat dry character. Rampling is particularly enjoyable but then she always is. Lady Mary Michelle Dockery does a decent job with the much-reduced role of Ruth. At least she depicts realistic reactions to the things she learns about her mother. Rufus Sewell is very good as Lucas Romer, injecting just the right tone to make viewers wonder what secrets he is hiding.

The adaptation looks great too, with wonderful costumes and authentic looking settings. But even with all of this it still feels like a story that is being told third or fourth hand rather than someone’s direct experience of dramatic events. Which is basically the same problem as the book has. Somehow in neither incarnation did Boyd make it seem like his audience was seeing things unfold from the privileged viewpoint we should have had. Rather it’s like we are reading or watching news from a distance, so that any chance of us feeling emotionally connected is well and truly removed.

The winner?

I wouldn’t recommend RESTLESS in either format but if you do feel the need to indulge I’d skip the book and go straight to the adaptation. You get the best bits of the story and a little more drama than the book manages to provide. But in either incarnation I think RESTLESS is a bit of a damp squib: lots of promise in the premise but it ultimately fails to deliver.

Have you read the book and/or seen the adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?

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6 Responses to Book vs Adaptation: RESTLESS by William Boyd

  1. I’ve heard a lot of ‘happy press’ about this one, too, Bernadette. The premise of it did sound, good, too. But if there’s not anything to keep the story going, then, well, I can see how you lost interest. You make an interesting point, too, about reading about someone’s life or a series of events vs being a part of them, if I can put it that way. Thanks as ever for your candor.

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  2. vicky blake says:

    I’ve just read his most recent one Sweet Caress which is written in the first person but I felt held at a remove from it in just the same way you suggest in this review. It was a frustrating experience reading it.

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  3. Felicity says:

    I haven’t read this one, but attempted to read another and gave up. He’s such a lauded author I thought it was just me and my short attention span – glad to know I’m not alone!

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  4. tracybham says:

    I bought this book at the book sale in September, because I have a weakness for spy stories and the time period. I had not heard of William Boyd at all before. I will still try reading it someday but all your comments are interesting. It does sound like the adaptation is better.

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  5. I read this a year or two ago and really disliked it: I didn’t think he was any good at doing the women’s voices, I found it dull and packed with unnecessary events. And, some of it is set in 1976, and it was full of mistakes (how hard is it…?). So a thumbs down from me, and, like you, can’t understand the praise for it.

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