William Boyd is the author of one of the best spy books of the last decade, Restless, a story of espionage in Nazi occupied France and the subsequent ramifications of a great betrayal. It wonderfully combined both historical detail and modern day disengagement with some of the more difficult parts of the Second World War. Although I enjoyed his follow up thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms I was looking forward to Boyd returning to historical espionage in his latest book.
Waiting for Sunrise is the story of Lysander Rief, an actor and son of a famous British stage legend and an Austrian mother. Engaged to be married, he travels to 1913 Vienna to seek help for an embarrassing sexual problem and is treated by psychologist Dr Bensimon. On his visit to the clinic he encounters the beautiful cocaine addicted Hettie Bull and embarks on a passionate affair. Convinced he is cured of his sexual dysfunction, Hettie then accuses him of rape and with the help of the British Embassy in Vienna he escapes to England.
As war breaks out, his experiences leave him open to blackmail and manipulation and he is recruited by the original people who helped him flee his accusers to find a traitor in the high echelons on the British War Office given the codename Andromeda.
Boyd is an excellent writer who uses differences in tone and narrative voice to separate passages of his book. It gives the book a strange distracted air, which works well given the subject matter dealing with the secrets of espionage and the mental travels of psychoanalysis. Boyd is also a writer who is able to take the reader into the heart of the world he creates. 1913 Vienna, 1914 London, 1915 Geneva, the period comes alive as the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrates and a new world emerges.
As a spy novel I found it less satisfactory. Like Restless there is a hunt for a traitor but I cared less about the identity of mole in this book. As perhaps befitting a novel with psychoanalysis as its theme, Lysander’s mother plays a significant role in the book but I found it difficult to untangle her involvement in the espionage. There are also some plot lines left unresolved, including the fate of Lysander’s son with Hettie Bull and the true causes of his original sexual problem.
It was, as I would expect from William Boyd, a good quality book but it read better as a historical thriller than a period spy novel. For that I would have to go back to Alan Furst and I have second book, Dark Star, waiting on my shelves to read.