William Boyd


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 16, 2006)

"I began to understand something of the context for my mother's particular adventure…[There was] effectively a whole British security and intelligence apparatus right in the middle of Manhattan, hundreds of agents all striving to persuade America to join the war in Europe despite the express and steadfast objections of the majority of the population of the United States."

When Ruth, a single mother and teacher of English as a Second Language, goes to Middle Ashton to visit her mother, Sally Gilmartin, in 1976, she finds her mother in a wheelchair.  Though Sally has always led a very vigorous life, she tells Ruth she has "fallen."  Clearly, however, Sally has something on her mind, and when Ruth is ready to go home, Sally gives her a folder of several dozen pages, entitled The Story of Eva Delectorskaya.  Ruth does not know this Eva person—until her mother stuns her by announcing, "I am Eva Delectorskaya."  Sally believes that someone is trying to kill her, and she wants Ruth to help her find her former boss in the intelligence service, where she worked during World War II.

The novel which ensues from the additional folders which Eva gives to Ruth on successive visits to Middle Ashton alternates between the life of Eva Delectorskaya from 1939 through 1942 and Ruth's life in the 1970s.  A Russian émigré to Paris, Eva is contacted by British intelligence after the murder of her brother Kolia, who had been trying to infiltrate L'Action Francaise, a fascist group, so that he could obtain information for his British intelligence chief, Lucas Romer.  Romer eventually recruits and trains Eva in England, giving her the first of many new names, Eve Dalton.  She carries passports in the names of Margery Allerdice and Lily Fitzroy.

Once she has been trained (and has managed to remove all traces of a foreign accent from her voice), Eve is sent to Belgium, where she works for a news agency servicing 137 local newspapers.   Agence d'Information Nadal is, in fact, a front organization which plants disinformation which the allies hope will be picked up and acted upon by the Germans.  Later she goes to Holland with Lucas Romer, and during a crisis at Prenslo, in which one agent is killed and two others are captured, Eve's actions prevent an even worse catastrophe and bring her to the attention of the highest officers in the spy apparatus.  Eventually, Romer's entire team goes to Manhattan, where they plant additional stories with datelines from all over the world, which they hope will draw the US into World War II.

Ruth's life, far more plebeian than Eve's, revolves around her teaching of foreign students, her care for her son, her friendship with Hamid Kazemi, an Iranian student and engineer, and her involvement in activist politics.  When Ruth finally succeeds in locating Lucas Romer, the two story lines come together in a grand climax.

Always a master of narrative pacing, Boyd keeps the story moving smartly, though Eve's story is far more interesting and more involving than Ruth's.  His ability to recreate the atmosphere of wartime Europe and the US in 1942, as the US tries to remain apart from the battlefield, makes for lively reading as Boyd explores some of the lesser known intrigues on the part of British intelligence.  The novel is formulaic—Boyd has often made use of diaries and journals to advance his plots—but the formula works, and the reader becomes fascinated by Eve's complex life as a spy.  Unfortunately, the characters themselves are not as complex, and as a result, the reader remains at arm's length from their actions.  With its unusual plot twists and its focus on British spy activity within the US, however, the novel moves quickly and is fun to read.

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About the Author:

William BoydWilliam Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana in 1952. He grew up in Ghana and in Nigeria and attended university in Nice, Glasgow and Oxford. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was published while he was a lecturer in English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. Boyd was selected in 1983 as one of the 20 "Best of Young British Novelists" in a promotion run by Granta magazine and the Book Marketing Council.

His other novels include An Ice-Cream War, winner of the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Brazzaville Beach, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the McVitie's Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year, and The Blue Afternoon, which won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction. Armadillo is set in London and follows the adventures of insomniac loss-adjustor Lorimer Black. The book was adapted for television as a four-part series screened by the BBC in 2001 with a screenplay by the author. The publication of Boyd's book Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, the 'biography' of a neglected genius, reportedly fooled a number of prominent art critics who claimed to have heard of the wholly fictional painter.

A former television critic for the New Statesman (1981-3) magazine, William Boyd is also a scriptwriter. He wrote the television screenplays for Good and Bad at Games (1983), Dutch Girls (1985) and Scoop (1987), as well as the screenplays for film versions of two of his own books, A Good Man in Africa and Stars and Bars. He also wrote and directed the First World War drama The Trench, first screened in 1999. A new radio play, the ghost story A Haunting, was first broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in December 2001. He is currently writing the script for a television drama based on the life of Adolf Hitler.

William Boyd became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. He is married (to the editor-at-large of Harper's Bazaar) and divides his time between London and South West France.

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