Sally Gilmartin was as solid as this gatepost, I thought, realising at the same time how little we actually, really know of our parents' biographies, how vague and undefined they are, like saints' lives almost -- all legend and anecdote -- unless we take the trouble to dig deeper. (p. 33)
Oxford, 1976: Ruth Gilmartin is a single mother with a five-year-old son, studying for a PhD and supporting herself by teaching English to foreign students. Her mother, Sally, seems unusually nervous, almost paranoid. She gives Ruth some papers to read -- The Story of Eva Delectorskaya -- and confesses that it's actually her own story.
Restless switches between the story of Eva (born in Russia, not Bristol; a British spy, not a secretary, during the war) and Ruth's matter-of-fact, somewhat indignant reaction to her mother's revelations. Ruth, it has to be said, is not an especially interesting character in herself: however, Sally (or rather Eva) is tired of waiting to be found out, weary of being afraid, and determined to call to account the person who trapped and betrayed her half a century earlier. She can't accomplish this alone, and she already believes that someone's trying to assassinate her. She needs Ruth's help: and Ruth, her perspectives altered by her mother's autobiography, realises that she is willing to help.
Ruth, as I said, didn't much interest me: her relationship with her mother, a prickly loving intimacy, was fascinating. And Eva's wartime experiences -- her glamorous lover, her work in inventing and disseminating misinformation, her abnegation of her moral code in the cause of a greater good -- were rivetting.
I stumbled occasionally on Boyd's grammar and sentence construction. Eva enters a cafe: "three other elderly couples" (p.84) are already there. Is Eva elderly, or a couple? No. Or someone's briefing her: "Mason told her a few bland facts, except for the information that Hopkins had had half his stomach removed" (p.161). So he didn't tell her that? I was also a little surprised to find 'a computer with a screen like a television' (p.190) in an Oxford academic's office in 1976, and to find punks already endemic in Oxford. And the subplots about the Germans and the Iranians, despite showing how Ruth's ideas were changing, didn't realy come together.
A very readable book, though, and the wartime passages had the feel of a classic movie.