Friday, August 17, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

When Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd was released earlier this year, it received some very strong reviews, like this one from the NY Times.

The book is a historical thriller, a spy novel, set in 1913 and 1914 in Vienna and England with stops in France and Geneva. The protagonist, Lysander Rief, is an actor, which of course makes him a uniquely suitable spy. Even though I don’t usually pick up cloak-and-dagger espionage novels, I was drawn to this one by the historical setting and by the descriptions of the psychological intrigue.

The book opens with Lysander traveling to Vienna to consult with a psychiatrist. Psychiatry is in its infancy but Lysander has a disturbing problem of (naturally) a sexual nature that has made him desperate enough to leave his fiancée and his job to go seek a cure. While in Vienna he meets some interesting characters including Hettie Bull, a fascinating, beautiful young woman with whom he begins a torrid affair. The affair ends when her common-law husband discovers she is pregnant. Terrified, she accuses Lysander of rape and he is arrested.

Lysander cannot believe she would betray him. Things become even stranger when the Englishmen—military men—who are in charge of his case help him to escape rather than bring the case to trial. (How much of this is really happening as Lysander understands it and how much is contrived? He seems at once horribly naive and fortunately wily.)

For awhile, back in England, it fades into the past as a memory of a narrow escape, a lesson learned, although Lysander has trouble forgetting Hettie and the son he left behind. But when the war breaks out, people from Vienna begin to crowd into his present and make strange demands. Lysander is significantly in debt to the government for arranging his escape. The men who were so helpful before now have a job for him. They need him to identify a traitor who is passing information to the Germans. Before long, Lysander is playing secret agent, risking his life, and trying to decode who, if anyone, can be trusted.

Lysander Rief is not one of those compelling protagonists who emerge larger than life from one book to make you want to follow them through a series of detective/spy stories. He’s no hero. He thinks well on his feet and he is remorseful when he has to kill or inflict pain for his own self-preservation. He’s intelligent enough to piece together the clues and follow a trail. But other than that, he’s a fairly shallow character. He tends to lust after whatever woman is currently in front of him. Sometimes he justifies that lust with a pretense of deeper emotion but not always. And he bounces back and forth between the women in his life as a matter of convenience. After awhile, I lost interest in what was going on with Lysander’s personal life and read the book strictly for its spy storyline. Here is where it is well-worth the read.

The book is fast-paced and tightly plotted. We follow Lysander through many twists and find out several things are surprisingly related, but how? While some of the multi-layering seemed a bit over-the-top, this is something that often strikes me in these kinds of novels. It may be that I have too hard of a time buying in rather than that the plotting was actually farfetched. I’m probably too naive. I don’t want to believe things I read in the newspaper could be true either. All the loose ends did pull together to a satisfactory conclusion with just enough ambiguity to leave Lysander cynical about it all.

William Boyd has written a few critically well-received novels and Waiting for Sunrise has also generated some fine reviews. I recommend it particularly to historical fiction fans who like WWI fiction, thrillers, or books with a psychological twist to them.

This completes my historical fiction challenge 2012. Even so, I know I'll be reading more historial fiction throughout the rest of the year so I'll keep on counting. Maybe next year I'll set the bar a little higher. But I do have other challenges I need to work on so I'd better get to those next!

1 comment:

  1. I started this one but found the characters too repugnant way before I got to the spy part. So I didn't finish. Reading your review, I'm not sure I missed much.