I enjoyed the last book I read by Boyd, An Ice Cream War (1982), but there’s something off with this one. I’m not quite sure what it is. The novel is labeled as a “spy” novel but that thread doesn’t really get started until relatively late in the game, although when it does it lives up to the genre in its own way.
Waiting for Sunrise
by William Boyd
2012 / 284 pages
read by Robert Ian MacKenzie 13h 7m
rating – 7 / literary historical fiction
Starting out in Vienna circa 1913, our hero, the young and handsome professional stage actor, Lysnder Rief, is working with Dr. Bensimon to alleviate his sexual problem. He meets some folks in the waiting room and this some of them are not quite what they seem to be. So he has some adventures and gets into some troubles and this gets him … well .. it’s a lot of funny business twisted into what turns out to be a spy novel. There is something about the story which actually reminds me of Michael Freyn’s Skios.
Hetty Bull, an aspiring sculptor whom he met in the waiting room, invites him to a party after which she says she wants to sculpt him – and she does. And yes he can. Life is pretty nice and he stays on But then Lysander lands in jail because of Hetty. But all is well, the British Embassy assists him in escaping. (Yeah?)
The first section has a lot of sex, but there’s never anything really graphic by the standards of the 21st century. The tone is rather flat, like a case study or rather distanced character. Our hero, Lysander is an actor by trade and forever analyzing everything. It works for me.
World War I breaks out and Lysander, now back in London, joins up. Considering he speaks several languages he’s really quite valuable so he’s then put to work as a spy – recruited by the same British Embassy guys who helped him earlier. (heh) His first job is to find the key to a secret code which is vital to Britain’s security and held by a possible traitor. There’s a fair amount of danger and a lot of questioning about who is telling the truth and who is working with whom and who is an enemy. Our hero manages to escape again albeit with a few bullet wounds, and it would seem that being even a second-rate actor in his prior life is very helpful. He wakes up in a British hospital.
Now he starts lying – lying and lying – feeling that the less he tells anyone the better. Actually, most of the other characters are lying quite a lot. There’s a basic theme here – from “Who is being honest?” to “What is reality?” And then of course, what is it actors and spies have in common?
Boyd writes nicely with a generous sprinkling of appropriate metaphors some of which are quite interesting and original, humorous at times. The descriptions of people and places are delicious, but the action itself is fast-paced, the plot is good and twisty and the humor is plentiful. I did have to keep reminding myself that this was published in 2012 because in some ways it really feels like it was written in the 1950s – maybe that’s just the whole British spy genre thing.
Anyway, I was bored for parts of it, had a hard time sticking with it and finishing, although when I really paid attention I knew it was quite good – it never did grab me though. (One problem might have been the voice of the narrator – blah.)
“The Spy Who Came in from the Couch” – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/06/books/review/waiting-for-sunrise-by-william-boyd.html