01 December 2012

Uncertain Pleasures

Waiting for Sunrise
by William Boyd

It is 1913. Lysander Rief, an actor on the London stage like his father before him, is in Vienna to seek psychiatric help for a sexual problem. In his doctor’s waiting room, he meets, separately, a captivating but evidently disturbed young woman and an odd, military-looking man, both of them English. He later has an affair with the woman, suffers an entrapment, escapes it with the help of the man and returns home to England.

Then the First World War breaks out. In repayment for the help he received in Vienna, Lysander has no choice but to allow himself to be recruited as a British spy – or rather, spycatcher. The rest of the story is about his adventures in that role and his ultimately successful efforts to identify the traitor within the establishment who is feeding military secrets to the Germans.

Among literary novelists currently writing, William Boyd is probably the most reliable performer, surpassing even Ian McEwan in this respect. I have never read a book of his that I genuinely disliked, while some of them – such as A Good Man in Africa, Stars & Bars, Brazzaville Beach and his last before this one, Ordinary Thunderstorms – have been absolute corkers. Waiting for Sunrise (the title occurs at least twice in the text) is not quite as good as those, but it’s still pretty good. The ending is interestingly ambiguous – my girlfriend and I actually disagreed on who the traitor was – but satisfying all the same.

If you like your whodunits properly explained at the end, with all the loose ends tied up, this book may not be for you. There are a lot of unresolved questions at the end, or perhaps I’ve just been dense and missed some important hints. Be that as it may, readers who can tolerate a little uncertainty in their literary lives can get a lot of pleasure out of Waiting for Sunrise.

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