Waiting for Sunrise

William Boyd is an intriguing writer because he doesn’t seem to espouse themes in his novels. Instead, the ones I have read have been essentially adventures, in which the protagonists renew and surprise themselves, but often at a high cost. A fascination with the work of the spy has popped up here and there, notably in Restless, which I read and loved a couple of years ago, and in Waiting for Sunrise, Boyd combines espionage with psychoanalysis, showing, I felt, how both delve deep to bring out disquieting secrets and give us glimpses of the unexpected dark side of the personality as it reaches out to sabotage attempts at order, power and mastery.

The story opens in pre-First World War Vienna, where talented young actor, Lysander Reif comes to consult one of the new breed of psychoanalysts. The gentle Dr Bensimon has his own particular theory entitled ‘Parallelism’, based on the understanding that the world is neutral until we colour it with emotions, fears and fantasies. Given that our experience is so strongly self-created, it must be possible for us to remake the world of a traumatic memory, re-imagining it in such a way that it no longer provides a burning source of guilt or shame. Lysander has intended to come to Vienna to be quite alone in order to concentrate on curing his sexual problem. But inevitably he gets drawn into the lives of those around him, including Lieutenant Wolfram Rozman, lodging in the same pension as Lysander while temporarily cashiered pending the investigation of missing money, and Hettie Bull, another patient of Dr Bensimon, an artist living with her angry and overbearing common law husband.

Inevitably Lysander’s psychoanalytic cure involves a practical component as he becomes involved with the neurotic Hettie. And this involvement brings him nothing but trouble, from the necessity of breaking his engagement to his English actress girlfriend, Blanche, to the prospect of a scandal so great that he is forced to leave Vienna in some haste. And the events of Vienna lead inexorably to espionage after Lysander has returned home to his family in England and war has broken out.

I won’t give away any more of the plot as its unfolding is one of the great pleasures of this novel. This is a strong, clean, spare book, vividly drawn in terms of character and place, tightly plotted as it gradually evolves into a literary thriller, but also intriguing at the level of Bildungsroman, as Lysander is forced into ever more demanding situations that require not just his talents as an actor and his intelligence as a young, sharp, quick-witted man, but also the darker violence of his personality which he has never been obliged to face before. If I were to have a criticism of any of this, it would be that I was occasionally frustrated by Lysander’s tendency to think with… well, the parts that Dr Bensimon’s cure has reached. But I would not be criticising his choices on the grounds that they were implausible, alas. There’s perhaps even something to be said for the sort of narrative that make you cry out silently ‘No! Don’t do it!’ to the protagonists.

This is a highly enjoyable novel that holds the reader in its very safe hands. There are all sorts of little extra pleasures along the way, including Lysander’s uncle, an elderly homosexual soldier, who scandalises his Kent village by bringing his African boyfriend home with him, the cosmopolitan spy, Florence Duchesne, a black widow if ever there was one, the representation of the corridors of power in Whitehall during the war, the early therapies of Dr Bensimon. There was definitely a point, about halfway through the book, where I really had to keep reading to find out what happened, and I don’t do that very often these days.

Now, by chance I happen to have a spare copy of Waiting for Sunrise, so it’s giveaway time, yay! Just say so in the comments if you would like to have your name put in the draw.


27 thoughts on “Waiting for Sunrise

  1. The book sounds brilliant, so count me in. I look forward to your reviews, they are so intelligent and thoughtful. Thing is, I always end up buying the book! Thanks!

  2. I was already drawn towards this and of course your account has only added to my desire. It sounds in line with Boyd’s concerns as far as I see them. I think it is central to his view that life is unreliable and unpredictible and history is similarly always open to diverse indeterminateness, for the individual especially. Only hindsight corrects reality as experienced. Hence in Restless which you mention and coincidentally I’ve recently started, a character suddenly discovers her mother is a whole different person, with a different name and history, impacting on her own life. The same is true of Ordinary Thunderstorms and Armadillo, where the ordinary is suddenly dissolved out of the protagonists’ lives, disrupting the nature of the world, normal events and people’s identities. It is a challenge to how we automatically read events afterwards and put a coherent form on them in our own lives, history and in novels, which neatly bundle up life for us in this way. And yes, please include me in the randomness of the book draw!

    • Bookboxed – that is a fascinating comment, and one that really opened up my reading of William Boyd. I think you’re spot on about that diverse indeterminateness. I haven’t read Ordinary Thunderstorms, and must look out for a cheap copy of that.

    • Lol! Actually I really wish all my blogging friends could come over and take away the copies that hit the dust in my recent cull. I still have a big box of them, and I’ll bet they’d be attractive to other readers. The virtual world is fab until you want to swap something material on it!

  3. Neither here nor there, but I always get Lysander and Leander mixed. I know perfectly well who both of them are, but the names are so similar and they both did things on the Hellespont and it’s all very confusing.

    I’d love to be entered in the drawing. I’m most interested in the history of psychology, and I’ve been wanting a really good historical fiction read.

    • Once, many years ago, I sat on a train to Edinburgh opposite a young man called Lysander. It was a long journey and we got talking (he was reading Zola, so go figure). He had a series of siblings with similarly exotic names, and the youngest, not long born, they had begged to be be christened Tom. Alas, his parents were determined on Apollo. Your comment, as so often!, made me laugh, a lot.

  4. Please put my name into the hat – this sounds like another good read from William Boyd. Thank you for your thought-provoking blogs.

  5. Oh litlove, now I don’t know what to do, on the one hand you make it sound so good and such fun (and Bookboxed, I blame you too) and I want to ask you please to include me in the draw, but on the other hand I ought to be reading either books for my two challenges/themes, which have fallen by the wayside rather, or books in Flemish, which have also, ahem, fallen rather by the wayside if they were ever really on the way… So perhaps you could enter me in the draw but ensure I don’t win?

    And such a pity that nobody calls their sons Lysander any more. Or any of those mad nineteenth-century names.

    • Helen, well it worked out just like you wanted. But I SO wished I had enough copies to send to you all. Ach, I can’t tell you how much I would have liked to send a book present to everyone. Oh and read my answer to Jenny’s comment to hear about my one experience with a Lysander. It might now become a name that rushes back into fashion, thanks to William Boyd!

  6. Any Human Heart is one of my Mother’s favourite books so I’m keen to see what the ‘deal is’ with this author. Thanks for a great giveaway!


  7. I have Any Human Heart on my TBR because it was one of Books On The Nightstand moderator’s top 5 favorite books of all time. That recommendation combined with your review means that I should really something from him soon.

  8. I can’t wait to read this–my library is getting a copy once it is published and hopefully I can grab it before it reaches the shelves! 🙂 I don’t know why I’ve not read William Boyd–he sounds like the perfect author for me and I have several of his books. I like that he writes literary thrill sorts of books and it sounds like he does them well. Did you get to talk to him at the Bloomsbury event? Maybe I’ll just treat myelf this weekend and pull one of his books off my own shelves, while I wait for this one, and start reading.

    • Danielle, I really think you might like William Boyd and certainly this one is worth a try. Let me know what you think – I’d love to know how you get on with him. He signed my copy of Waiting for Sunrise, but we didn’t say very much to one another – there was a queue! But he seemed a very nice man.

  9. Pingback: Waiting for Sunrise « Voor de vergetelheid

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