Waiting for Sunrise, By William Boyd

A romantic thriller steeped in the heady carnival atmosphere of early 20th-century Vienna and the poetry of the Great War

Just before Christmas in the closing light of a Covent Garden afternoon, Lord Weidenfeld, the esteemed grandfather of publishing, talked to me about his pre-war life in Vienna.

He described the period as the city's "last carnival". From the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Secession to when the jackboots of the Anschluss hammered up the Ringstrasse, the first half of the 20th century afforded Vienna a period of invigoration in the fields of art, politics and psychiatry. It is in this heady environment that William Boyd sets his new novel, Waiting for Sunrise, a book which immerses the reader in the coffee-house capital to create a highly accomplished romantic thriller.

The novel begins in 1913. As Sigmund Freud reinvented the use of the couch, across town, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were exploring their own dark, sexual theories on canvas. Meanwhile, a vagrant named Adolf is wandering the streets brooding on his lot in life. Into what Boyd calls this "river of sex", Lysander Rief, a 28-year-old English actor preoccupied with a sensitive issue, dips his toe. A follower of Freud diagnoses "Anorgasmia". To put it politely, Lysander can broach the subject of sex but can't come to the point. Naturally, psychoanalysis uncovers a crippling secret from his childhood, one with echoes of Ian McEwan's Atonement, a deception which is cleverly mirrored later in the book with Lysander recast as the victim. However, Lysander is an optimistic soul. "I want to treat Vienna as a kind of beautiful sanatorium," he declares, "full of perfect strangers."

Just such an alluring figure arrives in the brazen, ballsy form of Hettie Bull, a petite sculptor with seduction on her mind. Their full-throttle love affair, tumbling around in her studio and in low-rent hotels on the Danube, provides Lysander with a consuming and concerning cure. She is living with a grumpy expressionist painter, a neat composite of Ludwig Meidner and Aloys Wach, and shoots up "Coca" to alleviate her anxieties. It's not long before Lysander is in serious trouble, both romantically and legally. When the not entirely altruistic hand of the British Embassy pulls him out of the soup and back to Blighty on the eve of war, he's left with a debt to the government to be repaid at the onset of hostilities.

This novel appears at a time of heightened interest in Vienna's avant-garde era. David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, which details the rivalry between Freud and Jung, recently opened in cinemas, and one of the most successful non-fiction books of 2011, The Hare with Amber Eyes, chronicled the great Viennese dynasty of the Ephrussi family. And, of course, there is a wider infatuation with all things Edwardian, borne out by the success of Downton Abbey. As a result, the Vienna section of Boyd's novel seems especially strong. To any novelist, that particular point in history, when the city enjoyed such a renaissance of prosperity and rebellious energy, is gold as glittering as Klimt's leaf work. Boyd's talent for verisimilitude and interest in artistic movements comes to the fore. He also sports a natty line in costume description: velvet smoking jackets, bell-topped shoes and beaded scull-caps all get an airing.

The latter half of the novel, firmly fixed in the ploys and feints of Britain's fledgling intelligence service, is perhaps less colourful, but remains plotted with sniper precision. Lysander, with thespian aplomb, steps smoothly into the role of gentleman spy in the vein of Richard Hannay and John Ashenden. The milieu lends itself well to Boyd's fascination with arcane male arenas, revelling as it does in a world of Webleys, Mills bombs, codes and covert identities. The author's obsession with unusual textual mediums is also present, this time in Lysander's therapy diaries, entitled "Autobiographical Investigations", and amateur poetry. After all, the Great War was the poets' war.

No doubt there will be unfair comparisons made between Waiting for Sunrise and Boyd's previous bestseller, Any Human Heart. Lysander gets his Zelig moments, as did Any Human Heart's Logan Mountstuart: bumping into Hitler at a soap-box debate in Rathaus park and enjoying a bit of café chat with Freud. But these are fleeting, amusing detours compared with the pivotal role they played in Logan's story. And where the leitmotif of Any Human Heart was that life is a combination of good luck and bad luck, here the refrain is that "no human being is entirely innocent".

In his previous novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd inquired into how a person can truly disappear in the cyber age. It was an interesting proposition but his talent for drawing out the conflicted nature of life's trajectory is on more fertile turf in the pivotal moments of the last century. As a result, he has written a fine example of what Graham Greene termed "an entertainment"; one that skilfully reimagines a carnival on the brink of destruction and a man teetering on fate's tightrope.

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