Review: William Boyd – Waiting for Sunrise

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.

Waiting for Sunrise has been reviewed by most of the major newspapers and by book bloggers Random Jottings and Book Munch.

9 thoughts on “Review: William Boyd – Waiting for Sunrise

  1. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – An excellent review, for which thanks. I know just what you mean, too, about certain things making a spy thriller work or not work. This one seems to have a touch of the psychological thriller about it, too, which is interesting. And of course, the historical aspect of the novel gets my attention right away :-). I give Boyd credit for taking the risk of blending these elements, even if the spy thriller aspect of it didn’t work as well as the rest.


  2. Very good review, as ever, Sarah. I haven’t read any William Boyd but I did point this one out to my daughter who is currently working on a dissertation about the Hapsburgs at around this time. The book sounds fascinating. I recently bought another book by the author as my younger daughter was recommended it by her English teacher – I forget the title but it is about an Englishman’s life from youth to old age, starting in the 1960s….I think a coming of age novel combined with a social history of the period. Maybe I should read one of them.


    1. There is a slight reference to the Hapsburg’s in the book I think Maxine and plenty of period detail. The portrayal of the politics of the time would be interesting for your daughter. I’ve only read the last three Boyd books and at some point I should read his earlier books.


  3. Pingback: The Best of March’s Reading. « crimepieces

  4. wasenthralling but too many unanswered questions e.g. Why was Van somebody killed? Why was Keogh arrested? Was Munro the traitor? What was his psychological problem? Does Mr. Boud know????


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