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Book of the week : Waiting For Sunrise – William Boyd

Could there possibly be a more enticing setting for a novel than Vienna in 1913? Sexual licence, artistic fervour, psychoanalysis, the shifting sense of unease that precedes war and revolution: the mixture is so rich that a plot seems almost superfluous

William Boyd’s new novel, Waiting For Sunrise  begins on “a clear and dazzling summer’s day in Vienna in a skewed pentangle of lemony sunshine”; there is a “stirring of potential in the air, that possibility of audacity”, a brightness that seems to bring with it hope and purpose

Enter our hero, the exotically named Lysander Rief, a young English actor, who walks through the city to his first appointment with the eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Bensimon. Lysander, who followed his father into acting, has come to Vienna to seek psychoanalytical help from Bensimon, an English pupil of Sigmund Freud. He suffers from an inability to reach a sexual climax and as he is engaged to an actress, Miss Blanche Blondel, he is naturally keen to resolve the problem

Sitting in the waiting room he is anxiously pondering the nature of his problem when an extraordinary woman enters. She is clearly in distress, but Lysander is immediately drawn to her strange, hazel eyes and her unusual, intense beauty. Later the same day they meet again, and a more composed Hettie Bull introduces herself as an artist and sculptor, and invites Lysander to a party hosted by her lover, the famous painter Udo Hoff. Compelled to attend and unable to resist her electric charm, they begin a passionate love affair

Life in Vienna becomes tinged with the frisson of excitement for Lysander. He meets Freud in a cafe, begins to write a journal, enjoys secret trysts with Hettie and appears to have been cured. London, 1914. War is stirring, and events in Vienna have caught up with Lysander. Unable to live an ordinary life, he is plunged into the dangerous theatre of wartime intelligence – a world of sex, scandal and spies, where lines of truth and deception blur with every waking day. Lysander must now discover the key to a secret code which is threatening Britain’s safety, and use all his skills to keep the murky world of suspicion and betrayal from invading every corner of his life

As the story unfolds, at different junctures and for different reasons, the main character is quite literally “waiting for sunrise”, waiting for day to lighten darkness, and metaphorically waiting for clarity, waiting to see clearly through the mist and murk of obfuscation, for all is not what it seems, and clouds have moved in front of the sun, casting doubt as well as shadow. Boyd gives us a story about truth and lies, identity and re-invention, about trying to discover who is really who and what is what, and it’s no coincidence that Rief, is a young actor from a well known theatrical family, a man for whom disguise and assumed personality, ‘front’ and feints, are all part of his stock-in-trade, something he will rely upon heavily in the dangerous world into which he falls by chance

It’s clear that meticulous research informs and underpins every stage, every layer of this complex book, and William Boyd is such a master at setting a scene, placing a telling detail, ‘seasoning’ his narrative with just the right amount of factual flavour to balance and ground the fictional substance of the text, that his material is beautifully shaped and works to support his plot fully. As well as being astute, inventive and intelligent, he’s a writer with an instinctive feel for rhythm and pace and a gift for making the reader want to turn the page while still being fully engaged with the deeper themes of the book and the ideas behind them, so his stories just flow

The plot whisks him from Vienna, to Rye, the Somme, Geneva, the War Office and Hampstead; in and out of the arms of various girls and the offices of assorted spy-masters, all with scarcely time for him to write the abysmal poetry with which the text is sprinkled. The book’s ending is particularly apt; will our man eventually find that elusive ‘golden afternoon’, or will his days be dark and dreich?

Waiting For Sunrise is a feverish and mesmerising journey into the human psyche under pressure, a beautifully observed portrait of wartime Europe, a thrilling spy story and a literary tour de force from the bestselling author of Any Human Heart, Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms. It’s simply too good to miss

Read an extract from Waiting For Sunrise here

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