Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 368 pages
It is fitting that a writer consistently interested in personal transformation and the slipperiness of identity over time should write a novel that starts in one genre before sliding unexpectedly into something quite different.
The protagonist of William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise, Lysander Rief, arrives in Vienna in 1913, wishing to remain anonymous. He is there for treatment in the new and controversial field of psycho-analysis. Dr Bensimon, a fictional disciple of Freud, is confident he can cure Rief of his anorgasmia, a rare and embarrassing ailment that has afflicted Rief throughout his adult life. Now that he is engaged, he desperately needs a remedy. In a series of sessions, Bensimon examines key traumas in Rief’s childhood, while Rief discovers his own cure in the course of a passionate affair with the unpredictable coca-addicted girlfriend of an avant-garde artist.
Rief’s sexual angst is contrasted with the promiscuity of a fellow resident at his boarding house, Wolfram Rozman, who becomes a friend. Rozman, who casually and happily pays a chambermaid for sex, tells Rief that their residence is like Vienna itself: “So nice and pleasant, everybody smiling politely, nobody farting or picking their nose. But below the surface the river is flowing, dark and strong … The river of sex.”
Part one of this novel, in short, is classic Boyd territory: a period 20th-century setting, eroticism with a dark psycho-sexual undertow, historico-cultural developments determining the lives of fictional characters. Around page 100, however, the novel turns a right angle and follows a quite unexpected path. Rief is falsely accused of rape and, with the help of Munro, a friend at the British consulate, makes a daring escape. A year later, after enlisting in the army, Rief is contacted by Munro, who is now a lieutenant-colonel in the British Secret Service.
Rief is recruited as a spy and sent to Geneva in disguise, on a mission to track down an official in the German consulate who is receiving encoded messages from a British traitor. The messages have been intercepted but Rief is needed to get a key to the cipher from the man in Geneva. Such a plot device may almost seem like a parody of the spy genre, but what follows is a straightforward, unironic tale of undercover derring-do, detailing Rief’s risky mission and his struggle to escape with his life. A second mission sees him embroiled in a dark and complex search for the mole, codenamed Andromeda, at the headquarters of military logistics in London.
Waiting for Sunrise, which starts in the territory of Kafka and Schnitzler, ends in a world so Le Carré-esque it reads almost like a homage. This is not to denigrate the novel. After the intriguing psycho-sexual foreplay of the first section, the remaining four parts of the book constitute a literary thriller that genuinely thrills, a plot-driven novel assembled by a true master of plotting. The deftness with which Boyd weaves together a complex cast of characters across scattered locations and an extended time period is immaculate.
So-called literary thrillers often fall flat because literary writers mostly lack the skills to build a sufficiently interconnected and surprising plot, and because they fundamentally don’t respect the genre or the expectations of its aficionados. Boyd makes no such mistakes. As demonstrated in his two previous novels, Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, he is confident with the heightened pace of the contemporary thriller, and he packs his story with the cascades of twists and hooks that the genre currently demands.
This, of course, comes at a cost. Set alongside other Boyd novels such as The New Confessions or Any Human Heart, Waiting for Sunrise lacks psychological depth and emotional acuity but, as a perfectly executed period thriller, it demonstrates yet again this writer’s unrivalled versatility and consistency.
If there is a unifying theme between the two parts of the book, it lies in Rozman’s statement about the “river of sex” flowing under the surface of civilised society. If one applies this notion to later sections of the novel, Boyd appears to be drawing a connection between copulation and espionage. Every state feigns respectability and affects allegiance to the niceties of international law, but underneath flows a river of dirty secrets. When Rief tortures a German to extract the cipher key, he tells no one what he has done. The gulf between what we do and what we say we do – as people and as nation states – is vast, shameful and unspoken. So it was in the early 20th century; so it is now.
Boyd has been publishing novels for more than 30 years. Very few writers, over such a long career, sustain his zest, perfectionism and ability to surprise. If the term “Boydesque” were ever to be coined, it could only indicate creative restlessness combined with an ability to master every form to which he turns his attention. This is why so many of us await the next Boyd publication with such eager anticipation. You simply never know what it will be; you just know it will be good.
William Sutcliffe is author of ‘Whatever Makes You Happy’ (Bloomsbury)