Although it’s scarcely a secret, Americans tend to forget that very few of us wanted to fight in World War II. If you think the country is anti-war now, consider the fact that up to 80 percent of the population was in the peace camp prior to Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. One difference between that era and ours is that once President Roosevelt made the decision to join the Allied struggle against Nazi Germany, the peace movement vanished. There were conscientious objectors, to be sure — the poet Robert Lowell went to jail rather than serve — but by and large, those who had opposed American entanglement in what they saw as a European dispute either became pro-war or fell silent overnight.

In Restless, the versatile and prolific British novelist William Boyd (Stars and Bars, Any Human Heart) has written a supple literary thriller about the years immediately before Pearl Harbor, when as many as 3,000 British secret agents, working out of Rockefeller Center, carried out an extraordinary propaganda campaign intended to convince both the average American and the U.S. government that it was the nation’s duty to send its young men to fight for England. The covert-action program, blandly titled British Security Coordination (BSC), did not publicly come to light until 1989, when a lengthy article in the Washington Post finally spilled the beans on an act of Allied subterfuge on American soil that, though born of desperation, was breathtaking in its daring, deception and outright illegality.

As the Post noted, the British thought Americans were gullible and easily influenced. (Some things never change.) They planted fake news items, leaned on famous columnists, blackmailed White House aides, smeared members of the anti-war camp and spread propaganda about Nazi war aims in the Americas like marmalade on toast. The strategy was to shame America into war by making “isolationism” a politically and morally untenable position — which most people would now say it was. The strategy worked, more or less, but then Pearl Harbor came along and rendered the entire operation irrelevant — America was at war.

Given the number of people who believe President Bush was duped into invading Iraq by a neocon conspiracy, not to mention the vast potential for disinformation now offered by the Internet, it’s clear that in choosing to write a novel about propaganda, Boyd sets off a thousand contemporary ripples with a single, expertly flung stone. (“False information can be just as useful, influential, as telling, transforming or as damaging as true information. In a world where A.I. Nadal [a news service] fed 137 news outlets, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, how could you tell what was genuine and what was the product of a clever, devious and determined mind?”) And by focusing on the initial American reluctance to join Churchill in battling the Nazis, the book also makes an intriguing companion piece to The Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s strangely bitter and counterhistorical novel in which the flying ace Charles Lindbergh runs for election against Roosevelt, wins and keeps America out of the war.

Restless oscillates between two eras — 1939–41 and “that interminable hot summer of 1976, that summer when England reeled, gasping for breath, pole-axed by the unending heat.” It’s a summer when Ruth Gilmartin, a superbright postgraduate student at Oxford who covers the cost of never completing her thesis by teaching English to foreigners, discovers that her mother, Sally Gilmartin, is not the person she thought she was. Sally, it turns out, is actually a Russian émigré named Eva Delectorskaya who worked for the BSC during World War II, first in Europe, then in the United States, on some very hush-hush stuff (see above). And now Sally thinks someone is trying to kill her and she wants her daughter’s help. In effect, she wants Ruth to run a counterintelligence operation and become a spy herself.

The story of Sally, now Eva, is slowly doled out to her daughter, literally chapter by chapter. Eva is writing a memoir, explaining her identity and life, while, like the canny ex-spy she is, simultaneously leading her daughter on, bringing her to the point where she will understand enough to know what’s at stake and how she can help.

If this sounds a bit contrived, it doesn’t read that way. Per-­haps it helps that at first, Ruth thinks her mother’s lost her marbles, succumbing to an inexplicable bout of dementia. (Eva spends a lot of time scouring the edge of the wood near her home through high-powered binoculars.) For comic relief, there are some amusing scenes between Ruth and the inebriated Oxford don charged with overseeing the writing of her nonexistent thesis. As the author of only one slim volume himself, Germany: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (well, that takes care of that, then), he doesn’t seem too bothered by his student’s dilatory ways. “Lovely to see you, Ruth,” he purrs during one of her rare visits. “You’re looking very nubile and summery, I must say.” Unfortunately, the don is a bit long in the tooth, himself. “Grandchildren imminent, so I’m told. That’s when I commit suicide.”

Despite her initial reservations, Ruth is gradually won over by the sheer detail of her mother’s written recollections. In particular, Eva’s portrait of her “control,” a suave, mysterious Brit named Lucas Romer, who first recruits her in France, then has her trained in England and Scotland before sending her to New York, where she works as a “journalist” for something called the TransOceanic News Agency, eventually becoming his lover, is a masterful account of a relationship in a world where the first rule is always to “trust no one.” (“We may be lovers,” Eva thinks to herself, “but we are also spies: therefore everything is entirely different from what it seems.”) Just how different, she’ll predictably find out.

At one point, Eva is dispatched to Washington to seduce Mason Harding, a White House press attaché. In a bar, Harding explains White House policy. Like much of the book, it’s a scene brimming with contemporary resonance.

“You got to understand, Eve,” he said, savouring his second Whisky Mac, “it’s incredibly hard for Hopkins and FDR to do anything more. If it was up to us we’d be in there beside you, shoulder to shoulder, fighting those damn Nazis. [. . .] But the vote in Congress has to be won before we go to war. Roosevelt knows he’ll never win it. Not now. Something has to happen to change people’s attitudes. You ever been to an America First rally?”

Eva said she had. She remembered it well: an Irish-American priest hectoring the crowd about British iniquity and duplicity. Eighty per cent of Americans were against entering the war. America had intervened in the last war and had gained nothing except the Depression. The United States was safe from attack — there was no need to help England again. England was broke, finished: don’t waste American money and lives trying to save her skin. And so on — to massive cheers and applause.

At regular intervals, Boyd takes us back to 1976 without loss of momentum. It’s the era of Baader Meinhoff — Ruth’s ex-boyfriend, with whom she had a son, is a German radical — and the first, barely detectable stirrings of Islamic fundamentalism, personified here in one of Ruth’s students, Hamid, a charmingly sincere Iranian engineer whose brother was killed by SAVAK, the Shah of Iran’s secret police. These reminders that covert political action is a perennial reality function as more of a tease than anything else, but they keep the pot bubbling as Boyd guides us toward the culmination of two parallel narratives, where the mystery of a botched covert operation in 1941, in which Eva nearly loses her life and then runs for it, betrayed by a mole within the British ranks, fuses with the reclusive postwar life of Lucas Romer, now going under the name of Lord Mansfield. Finding out just who he is and what role he may or may not have played in Eva’s near death in 1941 is what brings mother and daughter together. It’s Eva’s final covert operation, and perhaps the first of many for Ruth.

Theoretically, there’s a great deal of poignancy in this thriller — a betrayed mother forced into hiding for most of her life, a daughter brought up by a fictional character who finally removes the mask — but somehow it doesn’t quite catch fire emotionally. Nonetheless, Boyd handles the historical details expertly — in earlier novels, such as The New Confessions and the wonderful Any Human Heart, he’s run up and down the length of the 20th century — and he evokes the breadth and sheer audacity of Britain’s covert operations in the U.S. in a way that will definitely keep readers turning the pages. As an exercise in genre, Restless brings a fascinating, shadowy sliver of history to light, and the movie’s likely to be pretty good too.

RESTLESS| By WILLIAM BOYD | Bloomsbury | 352 pages | $25 hardcover

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