In the early pages of “Waiting for Sunrise,” William Boyd’s cunning tale of espionage in World War I, a Viennese soldier warns Lysander Rief, the book’s naive hero, not to be fooled by the apparent placidity of the Austrian capital. Below the surface, he warns, flows a powerful “river of sex,” capable of sweeping away anyone who wades too deeply into its waters.
Rief appears in particular danger of going under. The young English actor has traveled to Vienna to seek treatment for anorgasmia, the inability to achieve climax during sexual congress. His doctor is a fellow British expatriate named Bensimon, part of a legion of psychoanalysts mushrooming in Freud’s fertile shadow throughout the city. In Bensimon’s waiting room, Rief makes the acquaintance of two patients who will play decisive roles in his life. The first, a free-spirited sculptor named Hettie Bull, soon becomes his lover. The second, a military attache at the British consulate named Alwyn Munro, will become a perhaps even more intimate figure: his spymaster.
Bensimon treats Rief’s condition with a novel therapy called “parallelism,” which involves re-imagining one’s past to purge the mind of traumatic memories. “The past is an aggregate of fictive realities we have already experienced — our memories,” the doctor explains. “What I’m going to try and make you do is change those old fictions you’ve been living with.” The remedy appears to be successful, as Rief soon finds with Hettie. Their affair eventually lands him in hot water, however, and it is only through the intercession of Munro that the actor avoids an Austrian prison.
After war breaks out, Rief is tracked down by Munro, who calls in the debt he incurred in Vienna. The thespian is transformed into a spy and sent on a mole hunt that takes him from bloody Belgian trenches to treacherous Swiss cafes, landing him finally in a seemingly bland London war ministry office that may be the biggest viper’s nest of them all. Along the way, Rief finds himself entangled with a beautiful French agent, further muddying the river of sex and intrigue that threatens to drown the secret agent.
Fans of previous Boyd novels, such as “The New Confessions,” set in part during the carnage of World War I, and “Restless,” which deals with espionage during the next global war, will find themselves on gratifyingly familiar ground in “Waiting for Sunrise.” (Boyd was chosen last week to write the next novel in the unstoppable James Bond series.) Few contemporary writers are able to evoke the ambiance and drama of our recent past as forcefully as Boyd. Here, he fully immerses the reader in the wartime era, whether it be a brief encounter with a kindly, owlish Freud in a Viennese cafe or a terrifying zeppelin bombing of a London theater. Even the drugs — coca for Hettie, chloral hydrate for Rief — are proper for the period. Boyd’s prose is often radiant, yet it is a brilliance that serves to illuminate his story. When he writes of “the throat-clearing expectoration of machine-gun fire,” the reader not only hears the guns, but also understands that they are being fired by well-mannered Edwardians.
And Boyd’s characters are as beguiling as his prose. The cast of “Waiting for Sunrise” can be as alluringly neurotic as Freud’s case studies. The characters spy, lie, betray and kill, and yet never manage to lose their charm. Perhaps the only truly sane one is Rief’s unabashedly homosexual uncle Hamo, who remembers his coming out to his older brother with memorable matter-of-factness. “When I told him — I must have been fourteen or so — that I thought I wasn’t interested in girls he said neither was Alexander the Great. Then he read me some of Shakespeare’s sonnets — and I never looked back.”
The novel’s only possible weakness comes as the mole hunt reaches its end, and Rief confesses disappointment that “there had been no Eureka moment, no detonation of understanding and clarity.” Later, he complains to Munro that he thinks the spymaster’s world is “too subtle” for him. Readers who prefer their yarns tied up in a tight bow might feel the same as the book’s hero. This seems to be Boyd’s point, however, as evidenced by the fact that Rief is last seen wandering forlornly into a thick London fog. “Waiting for Sunrise” might have the feel and pace of a thriller, but its ultimate focus is on the psychic damage inflicted on some of those who enter the permanent night of espionage.
Amidon’s “Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron” will be published in June.
WAITING FOR SUNRISE
By William Boyd
Harper. 353 pp. $25.99