Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd is a literary thriller, starting in pre-first World War Vienna and finishing in wartime London. In between it touches down in the battlefields of France and a more peaceful Geneva. The main protagonist is Lysander Rief, a young English actor beginning to make a name for himself on the stage, following in the footsteps of his more famous father. As the novel commences, Lysander has travelled to Geneva seeking psychotherapy for a sexual problem from one of Vienna’s leading psychotherapists. Lysander remains at the centre of events throughout the novel, becoming a wartime undercover agent on a mission to identify a traitor who is leaking important logistical information to the Germans. Several women play a key role in his story – Blanche, his actress fiancé as the book begins, is initially left back in London, while in Vienna he falls under the sway of Hettie Bull, a sculptress, who comes to dominate his life completely. As the book progresses Lysander begins to feel that he is being and has been manipulated from an early stage by those around him, even those closest to him, and becomes increasingly uncertain who, if anyone, he can trust.
William Boyd is a successful and well-established author, probably best known for Any Human Heart, A Good Man in Africa, and An Ice-Cream War. He has won a number of literary awards and is undoubtedly a very accomplished writer. Waiting for Sunrise is an entertaining read, with a complex plot with plenty of twists and turns set in an interesting historical period which is portrayed in a convincing way. Apart from Lysander, there is a cast of convincing supporting characters, most of whom will have a significant role to play before events resolve. Even at the end of the book, there is a sense of uncertainly as to whether the whole truth has been revealed or resolved. To quote Lysander “The more we know, the less we know”.
I enjoyed Waiting for Sunrise, without thinking it exceptional. It was a good read, but I don’t expect it to stick in my mind for very long. I liked the idea of “parallelism”, a psychological technique by which Lysander is helped to forget past traumatic events by imaging repeatedly and in detail a less traumatic alternative which gradually he comes to believe was real. There are various linkages to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Lysander under a magical spell, a denouement in a forest etc. Most of the book is written in the third person, but some sections are written as autobiographical notes in the first person by Lysander, and for me the transition grated a little. Interestingly from a technique perspective, the book starts with second person sections addressed to the imaginary reader, which act as a frame for the contents. Overall, then, a good literary thriller, but for me not quite outstanding. I think it would translate well to cinema or television, a period thriller with plenty of sex and some violence.