I will be perfectly honest here and say I have not read much William Boyd. Restless a few years ago which I enjoyed, though preferred the war time story rather than the more contemporary one, and thought must keep an eye out for more by this author. Then last year when visiting my daughter in Australia I came across a copy in her book case of Any Human Heart. 'Mum you have to read this, it's wonderful'.
She was right. It was.
And so is this.
Waiting for Sunrise arrived on Tuesday morning and for the rest of the day all chores were abandoned as I sat on my lovely new sofa and read and read and read. I then found I had to put the book down. I was enjoying it so much I did not want it to end so had to ration myself until yesterday when I thought sod this for a game of soldiers and took it up and read it through to its incredible conclusion.
Lysander Rief is an actor making a name for himself in the London theatre. He is engaged to an actress, Blanche, but has a problem which he needs to sort out before he can marry. It is a sexual problem and he is recommended to a psychiatrist in Vienna. It is 1913, pre-war when Vienna is the city of Freud, music, artists and gaiety, and the last light of the Edwardian summer is soon to end in the mud of the trenches.
While sitting in the waiting room of Dr Bensimmon a young woman bursts in, clearly in an agitated state
"He could sense this woman' unease, her tension coming off her in waves, as if some dynamo inside her were generating this febrility, this - the German word came to him pleasingly - this Angst........he turned and their eyes met..... large and wide the white visibly surrounding the iris - as if she were staring with great intensity or had been shocked in some way"
Her name is Hettie Bull and they begin a passionate affair. With her, it seems, miraculously, as if his problem has been cured. And then he finds himself in deep trouble, arrested for rape and thrown into jail where he turns for help to a member of the British Embassy, Alwyn Munro, who he had met earlier, also at Dr Bensimon's practice.
Now it is difficult to continue writing about Waiting for Sunrise without giving away more details of the plot so I will now step carefully. Lysander finds himself in monetary debt to the British government after their assistance in Vienna over the rape case, and once the Great War begins he is given the chance to clear this by undertaking an undercover mission using his skills as an actor. It takes him to Switzerland to track down an informer which, in turn will lead to a traitor high up in the British War Office. He is successful in his mission but at a price and when he returns to London he meets Hettie Bull once more and is beguiled by her all over again. Coincidence or planned? Read on to find out....
This is a nail biting story. Always lurking is the thought that when the reader turns over a page something dreadful is going to happen and we have no idea what. The tension created by words on paper is quite breathtaking and this is another reason why I kept putting the book down - I needed a break. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is what they seem and Lysander, and the reader, are on tenterhooks all the time wondering if any person he meets is to be trusted. I had an awful feeling who was involved as the book progressed and then when I thought this was correct had this turned totally on its head by a double bluff and twist right at the very end which completely flummoxed me and left me gasping.
I was not sure at first that the main protagonist, Lysander Rief, was a particularly likeable person. He had a childhood secret which rather shook me when I discovered what it was, and he seemed to take to his spying activities rather well, probably because he has already practiced subterfuge in his life and is rather good at it (I was reminded several times during my perusal of The Perfect Spy by John le Carre, another tour de force of double bluff and deceit and a hero affected by his childhood). There is a vulnerability about him however which rather endeared him to me. Sections of the book are in the first person so we are privy to his thoughts and fears, a wise move by the author as I feel otherwise we might lack sympathy for Lysander.
I have a sneaky feeling while writing that I am making a pretty poor fist of this review. It is such a complex and intricately plotted book and I really am not quite sure which aspect to concentrate on so you will have to forgive me if my thoughts are rambling and somewhat incoherent.
As all readers of Random know, I don't read much modern 'literature', which is a poor admission from someone who is supposed to be a book blogger, but I do take heart that I am not totally lost to the fact that there are wonderful writers after Dickens and the Brontes and when a book like this comes along I just sit back lost in admiration at the reminder that this is indeed the case.
By the end of Waiting for Sunrise, we see Lysander a changed man. Young, rather naive and lacking in confidence, both sexual and moral, in the opening chapters, by the final page he has found himself:
""I feel after what I have gone through, that I understand a little of our modern world now, as it exists today. And perhaps I've even been offered a glimpse into its future.....and yet, for all the privileged insight and knowledge that I gleaned, I felt that the more I seemed to know, then the more clarity and certainty dimmed and faded away ..... the more we know, the less we know. Funnily enough, I can live with that idea quite happily. If this is our modern world I feel a modern man"
So Lysander, a young man living in the Edwardian era in the opening pages, now finds himself at the end of the narrative, prepared for what the world can throw at him.
A quite stunning, brilliant book.