We tend to think of history as grand, immutable, writ in stone, but as British novelist William Boyd reminds us, human history is human error and human frailty. In wry, thrillerish novels like the Whitbread Award-winning Our Man in Africa and The Ice Cream War, shortlisted for the Man Booker, Boyd pinpoints the places where history and human lives intersect.
His 12th novel begins in brilliant sunshine, in a brilliant new age. This is Vienna in 1913, where Boyd’s hero, Lysander Rief, a young “almost handsome” English actor has come for a cure. His problem? A spot of trouble in the sack. “There is no orgasm.”
He’s come to the right place, then. The sun is setting on Edwardian repression; a Viennese doctor named Freud has become popular; and suddenly, sex is everywhere — even Lysander’s boarding house. A fellow boarder takes him aside and explains for a fee, the maid will be glad to see to Lysander’s other, um, needs.
“I had no idea. In this place of all places — it’s very deceptive,” marvels Lysander, the latest in a line of Boyd protagonists — earnest, well-meaning, British and naive.
With a light but sure touch, the author evokes time and place, from Lysander taking chloral hydrate to help him sleep to acting in “an indecent play” — Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Lysander is wised up by his psychotherapist, but even more so by wonderfully named Hettie Bull, an uninhibited artist who seduces him.
Hettie solves Lysander’s sexual problem, but she causes a much bigger one. At the height of their torrid affair, she suddenly accuses him of rape. This, then, promises to be a spicy romp both psychological and sexual, but Boyd, named the heir apparent of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, is more gifted at deception than his heroes. Lysander’s arrested by the local police then released to the British embassy, where he is placed under house arrest. However, the British Empire has other worries, like the threat of a world war. When Lysander attempts to escape, his two overseeing officers, Munro and Fyfe-Miller, turn a blind eye. They might even be abetting him. He returns to London, so grateful for his freedom that when war breaks out, he enlists. “Of all the stupid decisions he had made his life, perhaps the stupidest.”
It is not the wisest choice for Boyd, either. The novel’s tone and pacing shifts abruptly with the change in location and not for the better. Here, as with Boyd’s endearing 2002 novel Any Human Heart, seemingly chance encounters have long term consequences. But just what these consequences are is murky, for Lysander and the reader. Munro and Fyfe-Miller reappear and press Lysander into secret service on behalf of England. Hettie shows up again, too. “Lysander would have liked to put this encounter down as one of life’s many coincidences.” Well, more fool he. Is Hettie his lover? His enemy? Are Munro and Fyfe-Miller helping him or setting him up? Even something as innocent as a musical score will come to assume different meanings during the course of the story. The novel itself seems unsure whether it’s a lush-prosed tale of psychology and sexuality or an espionage page-turner.
What does it all mean? According to Lysander’s psychotherapist, that’s up to you. “‘Let’s say that the world is in essence neutral — flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It’s us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling, purpose and emotion.’” He calls this parallelism. It is also the nature of storytelling.
Life can be muddled. But the pleasure of fiction involves the creation of meaning. The problem is, Lysander is curiously opaque throughout. What might make him an ideal spy makes him a challenging protagonist in a novel where nothing is what it seems. Boyd writes — often with dazzling ease — about crosses and double-crosses, but the material seems to get the better of him here.
The title Waiting for Sunrise refers to the moment of light and clarity when everything falls into place and makes sense. How long will we wait? In a book with many coincidences, it is no coincidence Boyd ends the novel “shrouded in shadow.”
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.