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Waiting for Sunrise  by William Boyd

I was surprised to find that Waiting for Sunrise was the first novel by William Boyd that I’ve reviewed on the blog – I feel as if I know him better than I do, thanks to excellent TV adaptations of his books Restless and Any Human Heart in recent years, but I’ve only read two before: The New Confessions (which I really enjoyed), and Brazzaville Beach, both years ago. I am however looking forward to his forthcoming James Bond novel with great anticipation. But what of Waiting for Sunrise, which was our Book Group’s choice for discussion last week…

waiting-for-sunrise UK hardback

The novel opens in Vienna, 1913 – that year before the war when Freud was a veritable star in that city.  Alexander Rief, son of a noted British actor and Austrian mother has come to Vienna seeking treatment for a rather intimate complaint. He ends up in the waiting room of pschoanalyst Dr Bensimon, when a woman bursts in and jumps the queue.

‘And I’m Hettie, by the way,’ she said. ‘Hettie Bull,’ thrusting her hand out. Lysander shook it. She had a very firm grip.

Lysander is instantly smitten, and they will embark upon an affair, but she is a woman of complications and their acquaintance will have far-reaching consequences.

Meanwhile back at his genteel lodgings, Lysander is discovering more about Vienna’s dark underbelly from fellow lodger Wolfram who is serviced by the upright Frau K’s servant Traudl…

‘This place – this Pension Kriwanek – is just like Vienna. You have the world of Frau K on top. So nice and so pleasant, everybody smiling politely, nobody farting or picking their nose. But below the surface the river is flowering, dark and strong.’
‘What river?’
‘The river of sex.’

Hettie not only cures Lysander’s problems, but really dumps him in it when her jealous other lover ‘forces’ her to say Lysander raped her. He takes refuge in the British consulate, and in return for help in repatriation to England, agrees to become a spy for Munro, the scheming attaché.

waiting-for-sunrise UK paperback

Back in England, he goes to stay with his adventuring Uncle Hamo, who is in love with an African youth he has brought back to Blighty as his manservant. His engagement with actress Blanche broken off, and Lysander is in stasis over what to do. This problem is solved when it is made clear to him that he has a debt to the government, and that it can be repaid if he’ll do more spying now that the war has started.

Thus enlisted, he is tasked with finding out the source of leaks to the Germans. This will involve spy action in France and Geneva for Munro and his colleagues.

‘Why me?’
‘Because you’re completely unknown,’ Colonel Massinger said.
‘Geneva is like a cesspit of spies and informants, agents, couriers. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Any Englishman arriving in the city, whatever his cover story, is noted within minutes. Logged, investigated and, sooner or later, exposed.’
Lysander was fairly sure that his features remained impassive.
‘I’m English,’ he said, reasonably. ‘So surely the name thing will inevitably happen to me.’
‘No,’ Massinger said, showing his stained teeth in a faint smile. ‘Because you will have ceased to exist.’

His later investigations reveal a complex web of bluff and double-bluff, masked identities and problems rather too close to home for comfort. Added to this, Hettie turns up again – unrepentant and with revelations to impart; she is a piece of work!

This is a novel of two distinct halves – the first of psychology and sex in Vienna, the second of applied psychology and spying; there is a distinct difference in tone and pace.

They are linked however, by Lysander’s ‘Autobiographical Investigations‘. These first person chapters are taken from Lysander’s journals that he keeps for Dr Bensimon. They occur every few chapters throughout the novel, breaking up the main third person narrative.

‘I want you to start writing things down,’ Bensimon had said. ‘Dreams you have, fleeting thoughts, things you see and hear that intrigue you. Anything and everything. Stimulations of every kind – sexual or olfactory, auditory, sensual – anything at all. Bring these notes along to our consultations and read them out to me. Hold nothing back, however shocking, however banal. …’

Another theme in the first half is that of Bensimon’s theory of ‘parallelism’. A sort of cognitive behavioural therapy in which you imagine a parallel world in which you don’t have your problem. This and his other form of more physical therapy with Hettie seems to work on Lysander, ultimately enabling him to become a finisher in all senses of the word, a quality that will be needed once he takes up spying.

Boyd’s evocation of Vienna and the other locations is rich in period detail: geographical, what was in the news, clothes – all are described to give a strong visual picture of the novel’s settings. The supporting characters are also strong: the kindly Dr Bensimon, devil-may-care Hettie, mysterious spymaster Munro, lovelorn Hamo, just to mention a few. Lysander may have started off as a somewhat aimless young man, unsure what direction his life should take, but all his experiences as actor, lover, soldier, spy will, in one way or another be the making of him, allowing him to act whatever part is required.

Our book group for the most part enjoyed this book, finding it an engrossing read with enticing settings. We had good discussions about psychoanalysis, Freud, ids and whatnot too, and we all thought Hettie was an amoral chancer. The spy’s world is amoral too, but was shrouded in ambiguity making the actor Lysander perfect for the role. Waiting for sunrise is a book of two halves, sure, but they both offer a satisfyingly complex drama. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher giveaway. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd (2012), Bloomsbury paperback, 448 pages.

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