This is my first William Boyd book. I bought it because on the front cover it said “Boyd is a first-rate storyteller” (The Times) and on the back “Boyd is English fiction’s master storyteller” (Independent on Sunday), and because the blurb said “It is 1939. Eva Delectorskaya is a beautiful 28-year-old Russian emigrée living in Paris. As war breaks out she is recruited for the British Secret Service by Lucas Romer, a mysterious Englishman, and under his tutelage she learns to become the perfect spy …” Enough. I was hooked. I was more than hooked, I was trying to leap into the boat I was so impatient to get started. Exactly my favourite period, exactly my sort of heroine.
But no. In Chapter 1 we meet the narrator, an extremely silly Englishwoman living somewhere in or outside Oxford (I don’t remember because I didn’t care), and it is not 1939. On the contrary, it sometime about … now? … must be, because she opens the story thus: “But now – as I look back on the events of that interminable hot summer of 1976, that summer when England reeled, gasping for breath, pole-axed by the unending heat …” Interesting only because you think as you read it that we haven’t seen many summers like that in the last twenty years and wonder all over again about this global warming business.
And then you wonder whether they stuck the wrong book inside that oh-so-promising cover. But you read on a bit to see.
You soon learn that the nearest this woman comes to holding a strong belief is that she “can’t stand people who give their cars names” and the nearest she comes to heroism is when she says to a lorry-driver who is trying to help her edge her car past his parked lorry, “If you’d get you fat gut out of the way it’d be a whole lot easier, you fucking arsehole,” then, “I accelerated off before he could collect himself.”
Do I really have to live with this creature for another 350 pages? I skipped a bit and, lo and behold, found myself back in 1939.
It transpires that the narrator’s mother, Sally, was once Eva Delectorskaya, and realising that suddenly, now, years later, she is being watched and followed, and fearing for her life, she has begun to write down her story and hand it in instalments to her daughter. Who of course doesn’t believe a word of it and thinks the silly old cow is losing it and becoming paranoid.
So we have alternating chapters, one with the silly narrator remembering 1976 followed by one with the altogether admirable Sally/Eva remembering the Second World War.
I read the whole book because Eva’s story held me on the edge of my seat from the opening lines of Chapter 2. But the daughter should have faded away. Instead, she goes on and on, growing ever more like something out of a bad soap or sit-com.
And of course there is the basic structural problem that Eva would never have written her story in the Third Person. If the whole novel had been written in the First Person, with Eva as narrator, telling the reader both what is happening now and what happened in the war – and if we saw the daughter from Eva’s point of view – it would have been an excellent book; but it is not.
Someone I discussed this with observed that the contrast between mother and daughter, between the two ways of life and sets of values, was a perfect example of dramatic irony. Maybe, but we could have got that in one paragraph.
The point is that the book without the narrator’s chapters would be far better, whereas without the Eva Delectorskaya chapters it would be … what was that line? “A Mr Wilkinson, a clergyman.” Purposely the most boring pentameter in English verse. But it stops there, thank God, after five words. Imagine “A Ms Gilmartin, a single mum and EFL teacher – that doesn’t stop there but goes on for something like 45,000 words – half the book!
And another thing. I don’t even know how to classify it. Half the book is set during and following the year 1939: historical fiction. Half is set in 1976: historical fiction? Page 1 is set “now”: does that make the whole book contemporary fiction?? Was that the purpose of this otherwise seemingly pointless opening gambit?