Thursday, July 29, 2010

William Boyd's Restless

We're hitting the road today, with about 800 kilometres to cover before tonight's stopping point, AND it's my husband's birthday, so just a very quick post before he wakes.

I've been a bit frustrated because I've only got four weeks or so of free reading time left, and my book order from Chapters arrived WITHOUT any of the novels I want to read. The list of books I want to get to is so long that I'm leery of spending time on any others, but my daughter's bookshelf is always interesting, and she recommended William Boyd's Restless. He's been on my radar forever, but I've never read him, so this counted as a crossing-off of sorts (what a terrible approach to reading, I know!!! But there are so many books, and I can't keep up!).

I'm just finishing the last chapter now, so no danger of spoiling the ending for you. Most interesting about this novel for me was the WWII espionage, particularly the intelligence units that worked as/in Media, planting and manipulating "news" to deceive and influence the enemy. This struck me as very relevant to what's going on today with the WikiLeaks -- whatever the "truth" may be in the contemporary events, our reliance on, and susceptibility to the influence of, broadcast journalism is clear. Restless emphasizes the power wielded by this force -- a warning, albeit at this point a horse-out-of-the-barn one, of the dangers we currently face caught between ideologically- and/or profit-driven, budget-cutting Big Media and a plethora of independent bloggers whose identity and ethos are only virtual to us, whose sources equally virtual and anonymous.

The novel moves between its narrative present in mid-1970s Oxford/London and Wartime Europe/USA as a daughter learns about her mother's mysterious past through a series of writings her mother parcels out to her. My main quibble would be that any difference in writing style between the 3rd-person narrator of the 1970s section and the 3rd-person narration of the WWII sections -- supposedly written by the mother as an account of her past -- is not clearly discernible. I thought I caught a difference at the first switch, but then realized I'd moved several paragraphs into a new chapter without realizing I'd changed decades again. I paid attention for a while, thereafter, but really, the two sections seem to have the same narrator. I admire writers who can create a clearly distinct voice when they supposedly change pens (A.S. Byatt, for example, and in mystery novels, I think Reginald Hill does this brilliantly).

Boyd does a credible job of representing the two women, though -- I never found myself exasperated, thinking "No woman would think/act like that," as can happen when a less skilled male writer tries to speak from inside a woman's head. The revelation of the mother's fuller history, and thus personality, to the daughter is interesting, although perhaps more as a concept than as actually realized. But I like the suggestion that our mothers may have more to them than we imagine, and I like seeing the mother guide the daughter into action, teaching her new skills in a kind of solidarity as they bring a quarter century's history to culmination. Frustratingly, though, there's no sense of why their relationship has been as cool as it seems to be at the outset, other than the mother's choice to sell the family home too precipitously after her husband's death. Perhaps it's only my own role as a mother of three daughters, but the mother-daughter relationship needs more fleshing-out to convince me of its individual complications and richnesses, and I found this one suggestive but ultimately a bit disappointing.

He also depicts setting -- both time and place -- very satisfactorily, covering a breadth of territory very convincingly. Paris, London, Oxford, New Mexico, New York, Ottawa . . . if Boyd hasn't been to each of these places, he's done some decent research, and the novel takes the armchair traveller on a voyage.

So overall, while I wouldn't have gone out of my way to pick this one up, I don't regret the time I spent with it. If you're looking for a glimpse into women's lives in WWII and in the changing 1970s, and if you'd like that glimpse to take you 'round the world as well, you might enjoy this as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment