Saturday, May 26, 2012

William Boyd takes on war and espionage in 1913-1915.

I read a review of this latest novel by William Boyd, and it sounded great.  It turns out he’s written many more, and I may just have to read them all!

Waiting for Sunrise

Waiting for Sunrise (368 pages, Harper, $26.99) tells the story of the young and handsome Lysander Rief, who is making his way, in the footsteps of his illustrious father, as an actor in the West End in London in the early years of the twentieth century.  Lysander is a bit of a poet as well.  With a deep acquaintance with British Theater—he acts in Shakespeare and Strindberg in the course of the novel—and a literary bent, we are treated to delightful prose, snippets of Shakespeare and other playwrights, as well as a thoughtful narrative that sets a high standard for sophistication.

The novel opens, however, with Lysander in Vienna in order to consult with a colleague of Sigmund Freud’s about a sexual problem he has been unable to overcome.  His psychiatrist tries to get him to try various methods of overcoming what causes his dysfunction, but when he meets a British woman who is seeing the same doctor, he is immediately attracted to her, and before long they are having wild sex that more than proves that he has been cured.

Because this woman, Hettie, is involved with a Viennese man, Lysander is playing a dangerous game, and when the affair blows up in his face, he has a hard time even escaping from Vienna in one piece.

The British diplomats who help him escape, well-spoken and ironic in their ways, turn up again in London, just as the First World War is starting.  And they engage Lysander, who is a private in the Army, to take on a project that invovles traveling to Geneva and acting, or so it seems to Lysander, like a spy. 

He does this successfully, and then he is dragged into even more difficult challenges closer to home.  When Hettie pops up again, and he finds himself having to deal with his loving, but twice widowed mother, he has more than he can stand.

All along we hear about the theater and the people he knows there, and that theatrical background creates a welcome counterpoint to the war wounds and the espionage.

William Boyd has written an elegant thriller that does far more than other recent examples of this genre can do.  He paints a rich set of characters and puts them in complex relation to one another, and he informs us about the cultural context in which they were functioning in the nineteen-teens.  This is a wonderful accomplishment, and I look forward to reading Boyd’s other novels soon.

William Boyd  

Waiting for Sunrise is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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