Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

waiting for sunrise coverSpies and lies…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young actor Lysander Rief consults an eminent psychiatrist in pre-WW1 Vienna about a problem, Dr Bensimon introduces him to the concept of parallelism. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. As Lysander gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. And despite some dark moments, it continues to feel like that all the way through, as if Lysander is playing a role in one of the great spy thrillers of the past. There are scenes that reminded me of The Third Man, with shadowy figures hiding in alleyways, and the characters, with the exception of Lysander himself, feel like representations of fictional ‘types’ rather than real people – the mysterious femme fatale, the traitor, the manipulative spymaster, etc.

“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. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want. In theory.”

Lysander’s little problem is of course sexual – this is a Boyd book, after all – arising from an excruciatingly embarrassing (but very funny) episode in his youth. Encouraged by Dr Bensimon, he keeps a journal which forms part of the narrative, allowing the reader to see the world through his eyes. Coincidentally, it’s at Dr Bensimon’s office that he first meets Hettie, the woman who will firstly help cure his problem, and then be instrumental in creating the situation that later forces him into the world of spying. And coincidentally, the man who will be his spymaster also first meets Lysander in the doctor’s waiting room. All of these coincidences, and the many others that follow, are hardly coincidental though. Even Lysander begins to wonder eventually why everyone he meets seems to be something other than they appear at first sight.


The book is about deception, self-deception and lies. And that deception extends to the reader too. There are elements of the plot that are almost farcical in their unlikeliness, and dark moments that are glossed over with such subtle humour that sometimes it takes a moment or two to decide just how seriously they should be taken. Looking at reviews of the book tells me some people have taken it completely seriously and are therefore complaining about credibility issues, especially with the ending. And they may be right. But my perception of the whole thing is that it’s a frothy construct, a parallel to the truly dark stories of wartime espionage, something imagined to shape the world in the way that Lysander wants. Having learned from Dr Bensimon how to obliterate unpleasant truths from his mind, it seems to me that the book extends this idea – so, bad things happen but Lysander, and the reader, choose not to dwell on them. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation.

Lysander had done his best to answer the questions seriously because he knew that Davison [the director of the play] had gone to Russia a year before, had met Stanislavski and had fallen under the sway of his new theories about acting and drama, and was convinced that all this extraneous material and information that one invented fleshed out the character and bolstered the text. Lysander felt like saying that if Shakespeare had wanted us to know that Angelo was well travelled or suffered from piles he would have dropped in a line or two in the play to that effect.

William Boyd
William Boyd

As always with Boyd, the writing is eminently readable – smooth, flowing, neither forced nor artificial, but with a lovely use of language. There is a lot about sex in the book, but it’s not at all graphic or icky (yes, I still haven’t got those scenes in Birdsong out of my head) – instead it takes the route of gentle mockery, highlighting the more ridiculous side of the act. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. Boyd is rarely laugh out loud funny, but I love the way he keeps a layer of gentle humour simmering beneath the surface, lightening the tone and keeping the reader slightly off-balance. He’s one of those authors who can be off-form from time to time, but when he’s on form, as he is in this one, there are few writers I enjoy more. Highly recommended.

Book 10
Book 10

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54 thoughts on “Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

  1. Lysander Rief! What a name. But I sorta like it. Does he have a middle name? Of course you make me want to know more about the embarrassing thing, don’t you know. But then half of me doesn’t want to know about it. It’s a strange thing, for sure.

    I like him! Definitely vicious. A warrior.


    • Yes, he does – Ulrich! Cool, eh? *laughs lots and blushes* I fear that is a conversation we could never, ever, ever have! There are some things in life one can read and laugh at but could just simply never discuss with a member of the opposite sex! *blushes more*

      He’s rather gorgeous, isn’t he? And Scottish…


  2. How interesting, FictionFan – a world that doesn’t seem quite real, yet it draws Lysander in; sounds like it draws the reader in, too. That’s not easy to pull off. It’s even more of a challenge to pull off when there’s a bit of social commentary going on, too, as there seems to be here. Glad you enjoyed this.


    • Yes, he’s a great writer when he’s on form – very good at creating slightly overblown characters and situations but keeping them just real enough to be credible. At least, I think so – lots of people complain that he goes too far. That subjective taste thing again!

      Liked by 1 person

      • If we made a Venn diagram (I loved them in school!) of you and LF’s reviews, the overlap, ie books you both enjoyed, contains books I’d like, generally speaking! And I should’ve mentioned – quite excellent review. Better than many you read in the broadsheets!


        • Ha! Yes – and the good things is there aren’t too many in that little bit of the Venn diagram! I always think it’s a good recommendation myself – our tastes are so different that a book must have something special to appeal to us both. She goes for emotional & psychological stuff, I want a good plot and likeable characters, and we both want good writing, so if a book has all of them it must be good! Aw, thanks – very kind! 🙂


    • That’s ‘cos I’m on my Scottish authors kick at the moment – got to support the home team sometimes! He really is a great writer – sometimes his books fall a bit flat, but when he’s on form his books are pure pleasure.


  3. I hadn’t heard of this novel before, FF, so thank you for reviewing it. Not entirely sure it would be something I’d want to spend time with, but you’ve definitely piqued my curiosity. All that shadowy deception — ’tis a wonderment!


    • I’m not a great fan of totally serious spy stories, but there’s enough lightness and humour in this one to make it hugely enjoyable. But he writes about other stuff too, so maybe I’ll manage to tempt you with another one someday… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed Mr Boyd. Gosh, this is getting serious isn’t it, with both of us scoring reasonable successes with each other. I’m anxiously waiting to see what you make of Mr Greig before I know if we will still be friends though…………….


    • Indeed! It’s quite worrying!

      Hmm… Mr Greig writes beautifully, there’s no doubt about that. And I’m only halfway through so I suppose there’s still some time for him to put a plot in, which would be nice… 😉 Hovering at around 3 1/2 at the moment. I may have to bribe you with copious supplies of chocolate to stay my friend…


  5. This is an interesting review, sort of shimmering away like the novel itself. 🙂 Of course, I know that you don’t want to tell too much about the plot. If you gave it five stars, it must have much worthwhile in it, But, and only speaking to my taste, it feels if perhaps the book is somewhat of a clever exercise; where the parallelism concepts, or the idea of imagining a life and experiences to enhance the ones you actually have, or to feel better about things, ultimately predominates over a strong narrative. Put another way, one isn’t supposed to really buy into what happens to the protagonist; some or all of it is his own invention; perhaps an idealized spy novel which Boyd is evoking but also lightly satirizing.

    I never was a big fan of spy novels, though my parents loved them. I did like Greene very much, because he wrote so brilliantly, and also wrote compelling characters. Le Carre at his best was also very good, because he wove complicated plots, and provided intriguing insights into that world. But most of them are not as interesting to me as mysteries, although one set before WWI, when there was all that political gamesmanship and brokering going on, might be more so–if it were a real story, an Eric Ambler type, perhaps. But this sounds like a very well written book which ultimately does not pay off in plot, though it might well in philosophical ruminations about the nature of personality or reality. I do wonder about the sex part, but I will have to simply imagine what it was. Embarrassing but very funny, hmm.

    So I will probably not read this, though I am sure it has merit. In the meantime, I started “I Am Legend,” and found it very good–except that while taking it out to the car for perhaps some lunchtime reading, I also had a couple of bags of trash to throw down the trash chute, and somehow I had the book in the wrong hand, and down it went. So I had to buy another one, which should come in a day or two. I am quite chagrined, but maybe I will imagine that I still have it, and write my own version of that novel in my head, while waiting for the real copy to arrive. 🙂


    • It does have a pretty strong narrative, full of all the stuff you’d expect in a spy novel, which is why, I think, some people are reading it as just that – and they could be right! I had this awful vision of Boyd reading my review and thinking ‘but it IS supposed to be realistic, and it’s NOT supposed to be humorous’! But yes, absolutely – that’s what I felt about it, that it’s an imagined story, not just in the usual sense that fiction always is, but that it’s deliberately paralleling the spy novel, only an inch or two to the side. I’m not a great one for literary tricks usually, but Boyd writes so well, and in his lighter books (which I feel this is) I always think he writes with a twinkle in his eye, rather than taking himself too seriously.

      But he’s a strange one – I remember discussing one of his early books with my brother, who had read a review saying it was funny, and my brother hadn’t read it that way at all, whereas I had. The humour (if it really exists!) is so subtle that it’s quite possible to read the books either way. This one I felt was much more about the stories we tell ourselves to get through life’s upsets than actually about spies, but it’s a pretty good spy story too.

      I love Graham Greene, but must admit it’s not his spy stories I go for most either. The Heart of the Matter is up there amongst my five or so favourite books, and I love The Comedians, The Power and the Glory – no-one does the failed but good-hearted man quite like he does. Must re-read – he’s another favourite who’s never made it onto the blog…

      HahaHA! I tried really hard not to laugh, but I failed! No wonder you were chagrined! I’ve never done that but I’ve dropped the odd book in the bath – usually at that crucial moment when you really don’t want to stop reading. There’s nothing more horrendous than trying to read a soggy book! I’m sorry – but glad you were enjoying it before the trauma!


      • You picked two of my absolutely favorite Greene novels! I completely agree that “The Heart of the Matter” is one of the greatest novels ever written. I am always telling people to read it, and a few do; but is gratifying to see that you also share my appreciation for it. And “The Comedians” is my favorite of his later novels. I have never read “The Power and the Glory,” although many call it his best work. All about Catholicism, I would think, although that oft-cited aspect of his works never bothered me at all in the other ones, so I should read it. I have read almost all of his works; I also like “The Ministry of Fear,” “Confidential Agent,’ “This Gun for HIre,” even “Our Man in Havana,” which I grew to appreciate more. What a writer.

        You have made WFS sound better than I had originally thought. It is quite a feat of writing when different readers have such greatly differing perceptions of the book.

        Yes, you may well laugh. I had never done that before. I’ll get right back to it, because the first part is very well written.


        • I always thought the way Greene wrote about Catholicism was fascinating though. Generally speaking, a convert to any religion tends to be hugely enthusiastic about it, but Greene always seemed highly critical, not just of Catholicism but of faith in general. Strange for someone who actually was so religious himself. I love Scobie’s struggle with his faith and his attempts to bargain with God. It’s been a long time since I last read it, but I’m thinking of running some kind of Great British Novel quest to go alongside the GAN quest, so it would fit into that. I’d have to come up with different criteria though – we don’t really do the epic novel over here to the same degree.

          Boyd is undoubtedly a love/hate author, but I love him – some of the time anyway. And he’s Scottish…

          Haha! Hopefully you won’t do it often! Yes, I think it’s much better written than a lot of sci-fi – looking forward to hearing what you think…


  6. Waiting for Sunrise sounds great, but I can’t stop laughing at poor William’s story of his book being dropped in the rubbish, lost forever! I’ve dropped a few books in the bath.They dry out, but they are never the same.


    • I know – I howled with laughter! It’s the way he tells the story as much as anything else – chagrined! Such a great word! Yes, and if you don’t keep fanning them while they dry the pages tend to stick together…

      Liked by 1 person

    • This reading in the bath sounds appealing. I take showers; and as you can imagine, it is difficult to read a book in the shower. But yes, I do imagine that there is always the risk of the book slipping out of one’s hands and plopping into the bathwater. Still, lying back in a nice warm bath and reading a good book does sound luxurious. I don’t think I have ever inadvertently thrown a book down the trash chute before, but I have managed to lose them in other ways. I would often bring a book to court to read during the lulls, but occasionally I would get distracted and leave one in the courtroom. Fortunately, most people in Los Angeles do not read much fiction, because I could usually return and find them in the exact same spot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Showers for cleanliness, baths for R&R! Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way – I vividly remember the occasion when my little Tuppence was a bitsy kitten and got the idea in her head that she’d be able to walk on bubbles! Having a terrified scrabbling howling kitten in the bath is not the most relaxing experience I’ve ever had! By the time I fished us both out I looked as if I’d been put through a shredder and the water was a delicate shade of pink. A lesson learned – for both of us! 😉


        • Oh dear, that sounds harrowing. I am so glad that no one was seriously injured! I must admit that I do miss the days of baths as a child, with my itttle plastic submarine, and then trying to slosh the water to make waves so I could have a sea adventure, but of course ending up getting the floor all wet with the turmoil of the ocean storm! And now that I recall it, I think I used to read a bit in the bath, too.


      • William, you haven’t lived!
        Reading in the bath is one of life’s pleasures. Books that are dropped in bathwater are never the same though, learn from my example and stick with rubbishy paperbacks in the bath.
        Maybe people in courtrooms are aware they may be caught stealing if they took a book you lost, no such thing as Finders Keepers.

        Liked by 1 person

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