Waiting for Sunrise, By William Boyd

  • @johnhenrywalsh

At first sight, Lysander Rief, standing on the corner of the Augustiner Strasse in 1913 Vienna, looks like a hero. He's young, "almost conventionally handsome", clean-shaven, well-tailored, and broad of shoulder. "He presented," we're later told, "a highly plausible rendition of a worldly, informed, educated man – but he knew how flimsy the disguise was whenever he encountered people with real brains."

He is, according to the narrator of Waiting for Sunrise, a bit of a fake. Nonetheless, in the course of the novel, he finds himself embroiled in sexual scandals, daring escapes, a stolen libretto, international espionage, a shooting on a ferry, a Zeppelin raid, a brace of femmes fatales, the trenches of the Western Front and a mission to unmask a traitor code-named Andromeda. Lysander is not a spy, a soldier or a professional adventurer. He's just a not-very-good actor, recently seen on the London stage as "second leading man" in The Amorous Ultimatum. The reason he's in Vienna in 1913 is nothing to do with the imminent war. He's there to ask one of a new breed of Viennese doctors, a psychiatrist called Bensimon, to cure his chronic inability to climax during sex. He's a poet, a dreamer, a bit of a drip. But as the book gets under way, the plot propels him into action, faster and faster.

At the clinic, he meets Hettie Bull, an Englishwoman with olive skin and pale hazel eyes. Meeting him again in the street, Hettie reveals that she's a sculptor and asks him to model for her. With a certain inevitability (Lysander is always being propositioned by women) they start a passionate affair. One morning, he is arrested by police, apparently betrayed by Hettie, and charged with rape. He faces 10 years in jail. With the help of a diplomat called Munro, he escapes from a villa in the grounds of the British Embassy, heads for Trieste and home.

Hardly has he time to catch breath, and bed his co-star in Strindberg's Miss Julie, than war is declared. He signs up impulsively with the East Sussex Light Infantry, but the Viennese embassy chap Munro, and his deputy Fyfe-Miller, suddenly re-appear to explain that he's being sent on a special mission. There's a traitor in British high command. Coded messages to the enemy have been intercepted in Geneva; he must go there, and find the key. But first he must be "disappeared" – reported missing in action at the front line of the British Expeditionary Forces in France...

William Boyd toys with the reader at this half-way stage by having Lysander confide to his diary, "My life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with – I'm a passenger on a train but I have no idea of the route it's taking or its final destination." Join the club, pal. Nor do we. So many hares have been set running, we haven't the faintest notion how they could all be stitched together.

But we know we're in Boyd territory. We recognise the terrain. The theme of public events impinging on private lives is an old favourite. The ordinary-Joe character pitched into history has been a recurring trope of Boyd's works from The New Confessions to Any Human Heart. And the role played by chance and apparently random fate is again much in evidence.

Truth and identity are slippery concepts in Boyd's work, especially in his recent, more explicitly thrillerish novels. Characters in Waiting for Sunrise change before our very eyes. Lysander twice adopts a disguise (once carrying a double-bass, once a broken chair) to evade arrest. His name changes to Abelard Schwimmer. Hettie Bull becomes Venora Lastry. Even Lysander's sweet fiancée in London reveals that she has gone for years under a stage name. "We're all acting, aren't we?" she tells him, "Almost all the time – each and every one of us?" Lies and deception are everywhere.

"This man did nothing but lie, it was his raison d'être," muses Lysander about a suspect traitor. "Nobody really knows what's real, what's true," says the traitor, 50 pages later. "There are times when I find that I am not completely honest," Hettie tells Lysander, with spot-on accuracy. "Superficial. Facing both ways. Cowardly." There's much talk of façade and persona. A fuming Austrian artist even denounces Vienna's Ringstrasse as "New buildings masquerading as something ancient and venerable. Shameful." Dr Bensimon, the Viennese shrink, introduces Lysander to the concept of Parallelism: the adoption under hypnosis of an alternative past, in order to blot out nasty memories; a form of neuro-linguistic programming, 1913-style.

Through this fog of knowing and unknowing, untruth and suspicion, Boyd guides the reader with a master's hand. It's ages since I read a novel that offers such breathlessly readable narrative enjoyment, such page-by-page storytelling confidence and solidity. Boyd has a positive genius for pace and description. He whizzes the story along in short chapters and terse encounters, but lingers over evocations of people and buildings, so we feel we know their texture even while the plot gallops along.

This, for instance, is Hettie: "Her hair was pinned up under a wide, blood-red beret and she wore a dove-grey velvet jacket over a black skirt. On the jacket lapel was a large red and yellow shellac brooch of a crude-looking parrot. Artistic, Lysander thought, Laced ankle-boots, small feet." The next time we see her, she's in cerise pantaloons with tiny bells on her shoes. He takes exceptional care about details of clothing (rather more than he does about dialogue – I doubt if anyone would have been found saying "You up for it?", as Lysander's gay uncle does, in 1914.)

The book ends with the long-deferred unmasking, Tinker, Tailor-style, of the spy, although questions still nag the reader. What was Lysander's mother's true role in the plot? Why was Lysander sent to France to crawl around the trenches in order to establish him as Missing in Action, when they could have just invented his death? How does Lysander manage to torture a suspect in 1914 by the ingenious use of Brillo pads, when they weren't on sale anywhere until 1917?

It hardly matters. Boyd's novel is a homage to thriller writers, spy novels and crime detection stories and films from a hundred years ago, stretching from Sherlock Holmes, via Buchan and Greene, to Hitchcock, whose best films involve clueless men caught up in world events with spy rings, seductive women and trains. Boyd's book even has a McGuffin – the libretto of Andromeda and Perseus that harbours all the secrets. I even caught a whiff of Michael Arlen, the long-forgotten Armenian author of The Green Hat, whose 1920s fictions were full of characters "outwitting each other" and saying, as with Lysander, "He had just one more trick left to play..."

Waiting for Sunrise may offer occasional high profundities ("Time was on the move in this modern world, fast as a thoroughbred racehorse, galloping onwards... and everything was changing as a result, not just in the world around him but in human consciousness also"), but it's as a simple literary conjuring of atmosphere and character that it should – and will – be most enjoyed.