‘Boyd’s editor went at this with a light hand’ – Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

I’m probably a fairly typical latecomer to William Boyd; I saw the TV adaptation of Any Human Heart last winter and later devoured the book; Boyd’s sweeping narrative and elegant prose made for a real comfort read – straightforward, yet ambitious, storytelling at its best. Waiting For Sunrise, then, is only my second Boyd title, so I can’t guess how either this or Any Human Heart compares to his other work: in this limited field of comparison, though, the new novel comes off badly.

Like Logan Mountstuart in the earlier book, our hero, Lysander Rief, wanders inadvertently onto the world stage; chance encounters thrust him into a position of odd influence, as he finds himself an unwilling, if obliging, spy hunter in World War II. Top-and-tailing the book is Lysander’s affair with Hettie Bull, a mysterious and vivacious woman who bears Lysander’s child, but won’t let him see the boy. So there’s elements of a love-story, though these are rather left hanging, and the bulk of the plot here is that of a spy thriller. It hasn’t got the epic scope of Any Human Heart, and chunks of the book bear too close a resemblance to parts of the earlier novel – the WWII drop into Switzerland, particularly. Boyd again tosses in the occasional encounter with a famous face – Lysander meets Freud in a café – and this felt a little gimmicky to me. But let’s be more systematic.

Structurally, the book felt unbalanced. We open with Lysander’s trip to Vienna to get psychoanalysed for a sexual problem; this leads directly to his meeting Hettie, their subsequent affair, and Lysander’s break-up with his fiancé back in London. Hettie finds herself pregnant and, panicked, accuses Lysander of assault. Fleeing trial, he finds himself in the debt of a couple of British Consulate employees, who later force him into intelligence work. So the first section of the book is about a love affair and an unseen child, while the rest of it is all about wartime espionage – and although espionage can certainly be interesting, the way it’s presented here isn’t exactly enthralling. Because Lysander is drawn unwillingly into service (otherwise he owes the British government his Viennese bail money), the spy plot didn’t have any real resonance for me. There’s nothing at stake (well, expect Britain’s chances in the war, but we know how that turns out) so there’s nothing especially compelling about Lysander’s undercover operation. (The plot he uncovers is needlessly complicated, too, and relies on a daft amount of coincidence, but that’s by the by.) Boyd pulls Hettie back into circulation near the end, but it reads almost like an afterthought; their child is mentioned but not with any passion, a peculiar apparent irrelevancy. So the plot used to draw the reader in – the more interesting plot, I think – is pretty much jettisoned for a standard-issue war/spy story.

Then there’s the characterisation. Lysander’s an ill-educated actor, though his lack of education doesn’t seem to hinder him from hobnobbing easily with everyone he meets; his acting skill is a catch-all explanation for Boyd’s being able to dump him in any situation – he’ll act his way out of it (Team America, anyone?). His attitude to Hattie is inconsistent at best: he’s obsessed with her, then he barely mentions her for a couple of hundred pages, and then, when she returns, he’s melodramatically overwhelmed:

‘Meeting Hettie again made him achingly conscious once more of the irrefutable nature of his obsession with her. Obsession – or love? Or was it something more unhealthy – a kind of craving, an addiction?’

Just as abruptly, later, he drops her – because, of course, Hettie’s a plot device, not a fleshed-out character in her own right. She gets him to the British Embassy, which gets him into Intelligence; the entire love-story is one-dimensional, much like Hettie herself. In fact, there aren’t any decent female characters – they’re all there for Lysander to moon over, even, terribly, his own mother. Back to Lysander: despite all the upheaval surrounding him, he’s very flat. There’s enough ingredients to make him complex (an early masturbation trauma uncovered in therapy, several violent wartime experiences, the child denied him, his romantic entanglements) but he manages to pass through the book without making me care for him at all. His doggerel certainly doesn’t help – whether Boyd included Lysander’s poetry for comic relief or not, it made me snigger, and made me even less sympathetic towards the protagonist than I’d thought possible.

I could go on, but I’ll wrap up by giving you a sampling of the prose. I loved Boyd’s writing in Any Human Heart; it was elegiac and lovely. But here, it’s slipshod and clunky; it doesn’t read like a final draft. Here, Lysander’s engaged in a spot of torture for his country:

‘Glockner’s inhuman, throat-tearing roar of pain was hugely disturbing, made him flinch and wince in sympathy. It was the aural representation of his awful torment.’

This is the roar of a guy you’ve just electrocuted; it’s ‘hugely disturbing’, and so you ‘wince in sympathy’? I don’t even want to talk about the horrors of the second sentence. Later, in reference to a ‘rotten apple’, Lysander comments that ‘we may know what barrel he’s in’. Then,

‘The captain chuckled, enjoying the metaphor’s resonances.’   

I guess this might be a handy signpost in a primer for figures of speech, but here, all it says (to me) is that Boyd’s editor went at this with a very light hand.

Any Cop?: I didn’t enjoy it. I think there’s probably a decent spy story in there that’s spoiled by a wooden main character. The love story never gets off the ground. It’s readable, but as a literary novel, it’s riddled with problems, but if you can overlook some dodgy prose and bad characterisation, it’s a quick enough read.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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