Waiting for Sunrise is the first William Boyd novel I’ve ever read and I was instantly pulled in by the description. I’m generally drawn to books set in or around either of the World Wars and, despite my liking of them, I don’t often read thrillers or espionage books.
The story opens with London actor Lysander Rief staying in Vienna as Europe stands on the cusp of the First World War. Lysander is there visiting eminent psychiatrist Dr Bensimon to cure himself of a rather personal problem. As he steps out of Bensimon’s he meets a woman who will completely turn his world upside-down. It’s after meeting Hettie that his life takes many turns and after war is declared and he finds himself back in England, in a soldiers uniform and being sent back to Europe as a spy.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because due to its genre and structure even the smallest details can spoil what is an intricate and deep plot. Boyd has designed a story that twists and turns through many moments and most are utterly unexpected. It’s a wonder that Boyd threads them together so well as many are extremely polarised in theme.
I’m late to the party when it comes to William Boyd, so my stating that he has great talent is likely to be scoffed at as speaking the obvious. However, it really must be emphasised as not only the plot, but the characters are incredibly involving. None more so than the central protagonist, Lysander.
Lysander is a complex individual. He’s a star of London theatres and descends from even greater talent in his father. He lives in his father’s shadow and always looks back to when he was alive. His Mother remarried into money and prestige, Lysander has been raised to be the perfect gentleman. But, when Lysander is sent to war a new side appears and he becomes ruthless and dangerous.
While this change is perfect for the story and gives us a character with guts and passion, it feels a little off at times. In one particular scene Lysander must extract information from somebody and his actions don’t entirely fit his character build up to the point. However, after that moment he becomes even more believable as a centrepiece.
In terms of the surrounding cast, there are plenty of espionage archetypes within the pages. Nobody can ever be trusted, everyone speaks in guarded sentences. There are many soldier types that envelop Lysander and each fits the stereotype of an early 20th century man’s man. There’s plenty of brusque bravado and stiff upper lips to be found, but it’s in the female characters where the book shines.
Lysander’s story is really about the women in his life from the Mother who he is so estranged, to Hettie whose influence affects every minute element of his being. Each woman is much more developed and fleshed out than their male counterparts and this is likely because of their place in Lysander’s life. Lysander is a ladies man, he is known as being the debonair man about town and this both enhances and hinders his existence.
There is another major character I haven’t mentioned and that has to be Europe itself. Boyd depicts London, Vienna and Geneva with such passion and accuracy that it can’t fail to come alive in your mind. Boyd uses descriptive prose to build Lysander’s environment like a Lego set as he depicts the houses, then drops in the greenery and finishes by adding the sounds and smells. I longed to walk the streets and visit the brasseries and theatres, such was Boyd’s descriptive prose.
One thing I want to mention is… don’t come to this book looking for action and excitement. There are booms, there are fights and there are lots of plots and plans. But, everything is slow boiling and the momentum builds over time up to a finale that is thoroughly satisfying.
Waiting for Sunrise is a gripping piece of wartime fiction that throws in plenty of emotion and sex into the mix. William Boyd is a treat to read as his skills explode from the page. This novel has vast amounts of suspense and tension. Definitely one to read.
Published by Bloomsbury. This book was purchased and read on Kindle.
I really enjoyed reading Boyd’s work and would like to read more of his older work. Has anybody got any suggestions of where to start?