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Waiting for Sunrise

I’ve recently finished reading William Boyd’s fast-paced and gripping First World War novel, Waiting for Sunrise. Fiction, like the more firmly established poetry, set around this most futile of wars can be said to have a genre of its own; one need only think of Pat Barker’s compelling Regeneration Trilogy, which can be best summed up as focussed on ‘men, military and memory’.
For those accustomed with the reputation of Boyd as one of the UK’s leading contemporary novelists, Waiting for Sunrise had much to live up to. Set in the years before and during the First World War, the book opens in Vienna, Austria. It is here that we are introduced to the main protagonist of Lysander Rief. A fashionable young man with a ‘sportsman’s build’ and ‘brown breeze-blown hair’, and a London stage actor, he is in Vienna to partake of psychoanalysis in order to cure a sexual issue before he marries the beautiful, intriguingly named Blanche Blondel. Rief consults an English psychoanalyst based in the Austrian capital by the name of Bensimon. This, of course, is Freud’s area – geographically and intellectually – and whilst the man himself has a cameo role, his shadow and his theories loom large over the entire story, creating a puzzling subtext.
However, there are clues.
The first has to do with Bensimon’s own theory of ‘Parallelism’, which involves rewriting or building up the narrative of a disturbing or problematic memory to one that is soothing and pleasant, thus curing, or coercing the neuroticism into the safe cover of an illusion; in other words, to create a fiction within one’s own personal narrative.
The second, I think, has to do with the sleeping draught that Rief seems to take throughout the story, and which we later learn, through Bensimon’s warning to Reif, can cause distorted realities, which again can be reduced into the fiction compartment.
The third is Rief’s role as an actor, performing under the shadow of his late, great, theatrical father; the obvious strand here has to do with the father and son theories a la Freud. However, there has long been a device employed with varying effects in the modern novel – that of what is known as the ‘unreliable narrator’; it is a device I believe that Boyd uses with aplomb. This becomes clearer when one realises that the clues of the story are all focussed on the fictive, and it is through that prism that I believe this book can best be enjoyed.
It is in Vienna that Rief meets the strident ‘New Woman’ sculptress, Hettie Bull, with whom he enters into a passionate and, for a while at least, liberating affair, through which it could be said he really finds the cure to his issue. Bull, however, is already in a common-law marriage with a possessive artist. Rief and Bull are discovered, which starts a chain of events that sees Rief fleeing Austria, using his skills as an actor to great effect. But the whole episode, whilst riveting, again raises more questions than it answers. Following a page-turning debacle, Rief finally returns to London, and to a kindly impasse with Blanche.
The periods of time spent in London achieve a strong sense of place and time, and those familiar with the areas surrounding the Strand will recognise the Embankment and the theatre-district. The settings, reminiscent of the later Hitchcock, evoke intrigue and plenty of twists and turns. These continue into an assignment Rief undertakes with MI5, which sees him move onto a sinister scenario in Switzerland. At the heart of this story is also Rief’s touching relationship with a ‘musical’ uncle, and a stranger one with his Austrian mother.
Waiting for Sunrise straddles so many genres – historical, romance, thriller, spy – and is all the richer for it. The book is highly recommended.

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