In the month the shortlists for Costa 2007 are to be announced, my reading group finally read the Costa 2006 Novel of the Year winner.
The novel made for both an interesting read and an entertaining discussion.
Boyd’s novel interweaves two tales: the first is one of espionage and counterespionage during the second world war and the second is of the winding-up of the loose ends during the 1970’s.
Sally Gilmartin has lived quietly since WWII with her husband and daughter. Suddenly she begins to act in a strange, paranoid fashion and decides to write down her war-time experiences and reveal her past in installments to her daughter. As the chapters go by, the tale Eva Delectorskaya (for Sally is a Russian emigree) tells of her recruitment into the secret services and the activities of the British, particularly in America become increasingly fascinating and complex.
Sally/Eva is convinced that someone from the past has discovered her new identity and wishes to assassinate her, a plot she wishes to preempt. To do this, she requires the aid of her daughter, Ruth, whose story is told in alternate chapters until the two timeframes merge into the climactic moment of reckoning.
Much discussion centred round the purpose of Ruth’s story, which runs contemporaneously to the Bader-Meinhof trial of the 70’s. There are obvious parallels to Eva’s story. Ruth has a child by a German father and her past comes back to haunt her during the long hot summer of 1976. She earns her living teaching English to foreign students and one of them may be working for the Persian secret services. Ruth appears to be oblivious to the intrigues surrounding her and, a marked contrast to her mother, completely transparent and open, incapable of keeping a secret for longer than 5 minutes!
Her story suffers by comparison with Eva’s, undoubtedly the one that keeps the pages turning. Based on real incidents such as the Venlo incident and the wartime activities of the British Security Coordination service in New York, it provides insight into less well-known elements of intelligence operations during WWII. Dirty tricks, media manipulation, double and triple crossing form a complex and admittedly confusing plot with multiple interpretations – all good fodder for a book group discussion.
The plot becomes clear on a second reading – I was reading it far too quickly the first time round to pick up on all the inferences but I did get it second time through!
The group did find the book weak on personal motivations. Eva’s recruitment into the services is rapid. Her father’s enthusiasm for it is mysterious as his son has just been killed. (Was the cachet of a British passport really so great in those days?) Similarly the mind of the arch villain remains in many ways closed to the reader and the ending for some is anti-climactic.
Boydites in the group (or those of us who had read other Boyd novels) didn’t rate it as highly as his earlier novels. Not that it matters, it’s still a recommended and revelatory read.
Reading group guide
Supplementary question: Ask if anyone has been approached by the security services. The answers may well be very, very surprising!