Thursday, 14 March 2013

Book Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd


Waiting for Sunrise (2012) tells the story of Lysander Rief, a vaguely famous stage actor, who travels to Vienna in search of a cure for his (ahem) embarrassing problem of a lurve-related nature.  It’s 1913 and he’s interested in trying out this new-fangled “talking cure” everyone’s on about so he finds a psychoanalyst in the Freudian tradition.  Soon enough, Lysander’s noting down his dreams, lying on a couch, talking about his mother and recounting a cringe-worthy primal scene when he was found doing something best left as a solitary pursuit by his mother (again with the mother – what else did you expect?).

It’s in his analyst’s waiting room that he meets Hettie Bull, a clearly neurotic unstable (but sexy) sort, and Lysander immediately embarks on an ill-conceived fling with her.  I quite enjoyed this section of the novel.  The beginnings of the affair are suitably intriguing, and we even get a brief cameo from the man of the moment, Freud.  However Waiting for Sunrise soon morphs into a different kind of book and I found I was reading some sort of thriller.  Lysander is pretty much blackmailed into joining the war effort as a spy.  I'm not really sure what qualifies him as a spy.  But I guess he’s an actor – we get a lot of explanation about how good he is at assuming a disguise by smearing Vaseline all over his upper lip (makes you look like a snot-dribbling crazy apparently).  Some stuff goes on the Front Line, there’s a set of interchangeable upper class army toffs and everyone acts a bit suspicious.  Lysander is trying to find code-name Andromeda – an informant who’s sending top secret info to the German side.  He follows clues here, there and everywhere…leading back eventually to (you guessed it) his mother.  Is this some kind of joke on Boyd’s part?

At one stage I thought Waiting for Sunrise was going to turn into something else again.  Lysander becomes hooked to chloral hydrate, prescribed for his insomnia, and we’re told it can result in fantasies and delusions.  Perhaps his spying career is all in his head?  His analyst is a big fan of something called Parallelism – the idea that you can work through the bad troubling stuff from you past by creating an alternative reality where things worked out differently (a bit like Atonement I guess).  But no, nothing really evolves much further here, despite some promising signs.  Boyd jumps between telling Lysander’s story in the third person and the first (part of his Autobiographical Investigations or a journal that his psychoanalyst instructed him to keep) and I really thought that perhaps we’d see some gap between events and narrations.  Instead, there doesn't seem to be any point to the shift in narrative modes and I found the jump very jarring and pointless.

There are certainly some merits to Waiting for Sunrise.  Boyd’s creation of pre-war Vienna is evocative and anyone interested in psychoanalysis will enjoy the Freudian nods.  And whilst it’s plot driven, like a thriller should be, I had enough interest in Lysander and his philandering ways to turn the page.  But again some characters felt underdeveloped.  I was waiting for some craziness with Hettie (the latter part of the novel felt like it was building up to some sort of confrontation with her), but she just sort of slips from view.  It feels like Boyd never really got going and the narrative relies on too many densely plotted strands once the setting moves to London.

I can see this becoming some sort of ITV hour long series and I think it would work for TV.  But Waiting for Sunrise sadly hasn't persuaded me to try out any other of Boyd’s literary thrillers.

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