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.