Waiting for Sunrise: William Boyd's new thriller is a scattered mess

This First World War caper is ludicrously plotted and will disappoint those readers who have come to expect much more from one of English fiction's master storytellers.

Waiting for Sunrise
William Boyd
Powered by automated translation

There is a paperback edition of Restless - William Boyd's 2006 thriller about a woman who discovers her mother was a Second World War spy - that, on its last page, carries an advert for a chocolate bar. The novel itself begins with an epigraph from Proust. The unlikely conjunction is a symbol of the Scottish writer's position in the UK literary scene, pitched between the mass market and the highbrow. His books fly off the shelves but are also praised in the sort of supplements that never deign to review novels by many a multi-million-selling author.

Although Boyd's backlist is diverse, including experiments with forms of biography, and fiction that draws on his boyhood in colonial Africa, the massive commercial success of Restless seems to have persuaded him that his literary destiny lies in penning wartime thrillers. Waiting for Sunrise, his third in six years, suggests that he may already be bored of the genre. A First World War caper set in Austria, Britain and Switzerland, it offers neither the slow-burn mystery of Restless nor the breakneck action of 2009's Ordinary Thunderstorms, a Big Pharma conspiracy yarn in which there's a fatal stabbing and upper-case shouting ("NO! NO! RUN!") within the first 20 pages.

The story here takes a while to get going; Boyd doesn't hit caps lock until more than halfway through ("BOOM!"). It begins in 1913. A young English actor named Lysander Rief visits Vienna - "the city of facial hair", Boyd writes - to undergo a course of psychoanalysis. A shameful incident from his teenage years has left him with an embarrassing condition that he would like to cure before he marries Blanche, his actress fiancée back in London. But things don't go to plan. He embarks on a four-month affair with a sculptor, Hettie Bull, who then gets him arrested when she makes a grave (and unfounded) allegation. The British Embassy pays his hefty bail and sanctions his flight from Austria in disguise as an Italian double-bass player (his professional skills come in handy on a crowded railway platform). But the embassy's assistance means that Lysander can't refuse when it later recruits him to spy on the Germans.

Let's be clear: Waiting for Sunrise is a mess. The problem is not the ludicrous plot - Eric Ambler built fine novels on still less believable foundations - so much as the half-hearted execution. We are prepared to accept any amount of implausibility in the name of excitement - it is a thriller, after all - but what is harder to accept is how little Boyd bothers to dress up the haphazard encounters on which his tale depends. Time and again the hero's eye is "caught" by someone whom the narrative requires him to meet: the crush of a drinks party serves the purpose more than once ("Lysander turned to see Miss Bull standing there"). Someone appears at a vital moment "as if she had suddenly materialised".

The frank lack of artifice has the paradoxical effect of making events feel wholly contrived and thus free from tension. It's as if the author is pulling plot elements out of a hat, rather than (as with the switchback time frame in Restless) working through a clever plan designed to keep us on our toes.

Boyd's epigraph this time comes from Hemingway rather than Proust, so it's ironic that so much in the book is told rather than shown. Retrospective narration doesn't have to be undramatic, but it tends not to sit well in a narrative that lives or dies on the level of suspense it generates. A favourite storytelling method here is for Lysander to recount events from the comfort of a bar: "He sipped his whisky and lit a cigarette, his mind turning inevitably towards Hettie", and "He ordered a dozen oysters and a pint of hock and allowed his thoughts to return pleasingly to Blanche."

A writer as good as Boyd knows that we know just how bogus this strategy is. If he didn't, he wouldn't overcompensate with words like "inevitably" and "allowed". These attempts to persuade us that Lysander's recollections are acts of volition, rather than a prerequisite of the narrative, only highlight what the author hopes to conceal.

You could excuse this clunkiness if the novel was packed with incident, but it's chiefly concerned with soul-drainingly pedantic descriptions of furniture and clothing: "She was wearing a jersey dress with great lozenges of colour blocks - orange, buttercup-yellow, cinnamon" and "She was wearing a billowy, chartreuse, light-canvas dust-coat over her frock and a wide straw hat held down on her head by a silk scarf."

Eventually you have to laugh.

To be sure, our hero dashes about during a zeppelin raid on central London. He crawls through the shell-strewn no-man's land in France, and gets held up at gunpoint in a north London wood. In Geneva, he tortures a gold-toothed go-between with a live current. But - that last scene apart - there's rarely enough sense of jeopardy, partly because Boyd seems so sheepish about the conventions of the thriller genre. Lysander, left for dead on a Dover-bound steamer after an encounter with a pistol-toting French agent, tells us in retrospect "some mechanic or stoker emerged from the engine room and found me lying there in the widening pool of my own blood".

One understands why the author feels compelled to explain the circumstances behind yet another last-gasp escape, but in a page-turner, improbability is a lesser sin than dot-joining of this sort.

The novel is filled with lines that an editor ought to have struck out. Boyd says that "being rejected for someone else made Lysander feel hurt" - no kidding. Hammy rhetorical questions, perhaps intended as metafictional winks to the reader, fall flat: "Who could say where this liaison with Miss Hettie Bull would lead?," wonders one, "To what extent, if at all, could he rely on [the British Embassy]? ... Perhaps he'd gain some answers in the coming days, he reflected, but the complete absence of answers - even provisional ones - was troubling." This is just throat-clearing.

Nor is much time spent on developing character. You suspect that Hettie is a sculptor for no other reason than that it provides a ready catalyst for Lysander's infidelity. It's no surprise when, after a minimal acquaintance, she invites him to pose for her (with equally unsurprising results).

As with most things here, the difficulty is not the seen-it-all-before nature of events, but the lack of zest with which they're portrayed. Adjectives take more weight than they can bear, as in this phoned-in passage about Lysander's twice-widowed mother and her double-dealing acquaintance, Colonel Vandenbrook: "She was an extremely attractive mature woman, cultured, vivacious, confident. Vandenbrook himself - sophisticated, charming, handsome, amusing, rich - was exactly the sort of man she would be attracted to."

A dash more humour might have helped, even if the climax - in which the spy hunt leads to Lysander's own mother - is a neat joke on the psychoanalytic theme. It's a shock to find "English fiction's master storyteller" (The Independent) writing so bloodlessly. He once managed to hoax literary London with a biography of a fictitious artist, "Nat Tate", and it would be a relief to learn that Waiting for Sunrise is in fact the work of "William Boyd".

Anthony Cummins is a freelance fiction reviewer.