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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Waiting for Sunrise

William Boyd

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To purchase Waiting for Sunrise

Title: Waiting for Sunrise
Author: William Boyd
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 353 pages
Availability: Waiting for Sunrise - US
Waiting for Sunrise - UK
Waiting for Sunrise - Canada
Waiting for Sunrise - India
L'attente de l'aube - France
Eine große Zeit - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent in part, but doesn't fit together well enough for a thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 10/3/2012 Andrew Riemer
Evening Standard B 2/2/2012 Jane Shilling
The Guardian B- 17/2/2012 Steven Poole
The Independent A 3/2/2012 John Walsh
Independent on Sunday . 12/2/2012 Christian House
Literary Review . 2/2012 Adrian Turpin
London Rev. of Books . 8/3/2012 Edmund Gordon
The LA Times . 22/7/2012 Paula Woods
The National F 16/3/2012 Anthony Cummins
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/4/2012 Liesl Schillinger
The Observer B 16/2/2012 George Walden
The Spectator A+ 25/2/2012 Charles Cumming
Sunday Times . 19/2/2012 David Grylls
The Telegraph A 10/2/2012 Adam O'Riordan
The Telegraph . 17/2/2012 Keith Miller
The Times . 11/2/2012 John O'Connell
TLS C 23/3/2012 Jacques Testard
The Washington Post A- 16/4/2012 Stephen Amidon

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but several very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Then, after that 100-page Viennese fantasia, Waiting for Sunrise changes tack. Musil is transformed into John Buchan as Lysander is plunged headlong into the dizzying world of espionage, secret agents and double agents, traitors and informers, betrayals and last-minute rescues, as war looms and then breaks out with fury. (...) Waiting for Sunrise is tremendous fun. Those expecting it to live up to the promise of its opening section might be a bit disappointed to find the bulk of the novel is mostly a frolic in the spirit of The Thirty-Nine Steps. But it is done with great verve and inventiveness" - Andrew Riemer, The Age

  • "The effect is technically virtuosic, but for a novel with a psychoanalytic backdrop, Waiting for Sunrise is curiously uninterested in character or emotional authenticity. To read it is like watching a particularly adroit marionette show. One is amused, beguiled, entertained. But not for a second does it appear anything other than entirely artificial." - Jane Shilling, Evening Standard

  • "What Boyd has made is not so much a hybrid as a series: first, sex in Vienna; next, war in the trenches; finally, counter-espionage in London. Despite efforts to tie them together by means of recurring characters, the parts do not feel interdependent, and none is developed enough to be compelling on its own. (...) This is not to say that the novel lacks pleasing craft." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "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. (...) Boyd's novel is a homage to thriller writers, spy novels and crime detection stories and films from a hundred years ago" - John Walsh, The Independent

  • "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. (...) (H)e has written a fine example of what Graham Greene termed "entertainment"; one that skilfully reimagines a carnival on the brink of destruction and a man teetering on fate's tightrope." - Christian House, Independent on Sunday

  • "Boyd has always known how to construct a plot. Waiting for Sunrise moves with suitably Swiss precision. Sometimes it feels almost too frictionless. The supporting cast drop in and out with the preordained pattern of figures on a giant ornamental clock. What a clock it is, though ! It's impossible not to be awed by the intricate cogs, wheels and levers of the mechanism. That's why we read Boyd - that and his hauntingly hollowed-out male leads, traduced by the progress of time and their own uncertain grasp on who they are. Lysander is a welcome addition to their company." - Adrian Turpin, Literary Review

  • "Although the novel suffers from a few too many coincidences and a too-leisurely pace, Boyd (...) does an admirable job evoking the sensuality of avant-garde Vienna, battlefield horrors and the early days of British spycraft. But it is the evolution of a nation that is finally the most compelling feature of Waiting for Sunrise." - Paula Woods, The Los Angeles Times

  • "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. (...) The frank lack of artifice has the paradoxical effect of making events feel wholly contrived and thus free from tension. (...) 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. (...) The novel is filled with lines that an editor ought to have struck out." - Anthony Cummins, The National

  • "(A) tantalizing, fast-paced spy novel (.....) Lysanderís problems will prove less Oedipal than existential. To cure his hang-ups and love troubles would be a bonus; first, though, he must save his skin and defend his country from traitors, at home and abroad. (...) (S)eductive as it is, Waiting for Sunrise is no bodice-ripper. Itís a brainteaser, charged with uncertainty and danger, electric with restraint." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Before long, we sense that Boyd is not entirely master of his material, in the sense that the meandering plot seems to have taken charge of the author, rather than vice versa. (...) The whole thing can be seen as manufactured, but then it is done by a craftsman's hands and with polish. (...) What are we to make of it all ? Not too much or too little." - George Walden, The Observer

  • "The new novel is superb; hand-on-heart, may-the-Lord-strike-me-down terrific. (...) To read a William Boyd novel is to open a bottle of wine, light a fire, sit back in your favourite armchair and trust that the master practitioner will take you on an intriguing and unpredictable journey. Heís been doing it brilliantly for years, and with Waiting for Sunrise he has done it again." - Charles Cumming, The Spectator

  • "In this compellingly experimental work Boyd employs a style more collage than broad canvas; thereís a freeing up of perspective as the novel moves through modes of narration (.....) As ever with Boyd there is an effortlessness to the prose and a piercing acuity to the period detail and evocation of place, along with thrilling set pieces (.....) Waiting for Sunrise proves that rarest of beasts: a tantalizingly experimental work that is also an immensely satisfying page-turner." - Adam O'Riordan, The Telegraph

  • "It is all highly effective, if a little ... frictionless. Set against this is some pretty solid craftsmanship. The sense of place is remarkable, just the right side of laborious" - Keith Miller, The Telegraph

  • "(F)aultlessly researched and admirably detailed (.....) Waiting for Sunrise is more akin to a Hollywood action film. It is formulaic in structure, and the characters are insipid, except for the excellent Hamo Rief (.....) The plot, finally, is convoluted, and the whole is a far cry from less conventional earlier work (...) the books in which Boyd shows himself to be one of the most able and assiduous writer-craftsmen working in the realist mode today." - Jacques Testard, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Few contemporary writers are able to evoke the ambiance and drama of our recent past as forcefully as Boyd. (...) Boydís prose is often radiant, yet it is a brilliance that serves to illuminate his story. (...) And Boydís characters are as beguiling as his prose. The cast of Waiting for Sunrise can be as alluringly neurotic as Freudís case studies. The characters spy, lie, betray and kill, and yet never manage to lose their charm. (...) The novelís only possible weakness comes as the mole hunt reaches its end" - Stephen Amidon, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Aside from sections written in the first and third person, Waiting for Sunrise even includes sections written in the second, with the opening and closing chapters having 'you' watching the protagonist, Lysander Rief, in action. Such shifts in voices are appropriate in this novel in which author Boyd never seems to manage to find the proper focus, making for a messy thriller set around World War I.
       The novel begins with Lysander Rief -- an actor who, though raised in England (where his father was a star of the stage), is half-Austrian, on his mother's side -- in therapy in Vienna, in 1913. No, he's not a patient of Sigmund Freud's -- though, of course, he does run into the famous man -- but he does have an unusual ... performance problem, sexually speaking, which he hopes he can be talked out of. The therapy sessions allow Boyd to reveal much of Lysander's background -- including a betrayal from his youth that obviously still weighs on him.
       Lysander is also an actor; he's also currently engaged, but his fiancée, Blanche, is back in England. At his doctor's office he runs into another patient, the artist Hettie Bull. She's involved with another man, but she and Lysander begin a passionate affair that has him wanting to stay on in Vienna even after he's been cured. But his world is thrown upside down when he's arrested, accused of having raped Hettie.
       The local British diplomats help him out of this particular pinch, but Lysander's flight from Vienna isn't something he can easily put behind him: for one thing His Majesty's Government expects to be paid back for its troubles. And there's also the fact that Hettie was pregnant with his child ......
       With the beginning of World War I Lysander can prove himself useful to the government by helping identify a high-level traitor who has been passing along vital information to the Germans. Lysander is sent on a daring undercover mission to Switzerland as part of that, but that's only the half of it. The other half comes back in London, where he's again pulled into action to uncover the source of this terrible leak.
       Along the way, Lysander frequently resorts to disguises and role-playing; at one point he notes:

I felt envious, experiencing a sudden urge to rejoin my old life, to be back on the stage, acting, pretending. Then it struck me that this was precisely what I was about to do.
       Unfortunately, Boyd too often has Lysander in this position: he remains entirely a role-player, rather than a character with any sort of depth. Even what Boyd layers on -- the childhood experiences revealed in therapy, his interaction with family and friends -- seems little more than summary-filler, rather than anything real and deep.
       Waiting for Sunrise is a thriller, with all manner of suspicious occurrences and characters, with Lysander never sure whom or what to trust or believe; few tell him the whole truth, and many tell him outright lies -- but he gets caught up in this game as well. Figures also constantly cross his path yet again -- both Lysander's Viennese therapist and Hettie show up in England, for example -- and often as not Lysander (and the reader) are led to believe:
It was not a coincidence, he knew -- there would be consequences. Fucking consequences, again.
       Yet Boyd does not do very much with these coincidences, at least not what a regular thriller-writer would. In fact, Waiting for Sunrise turns out to be a novel consisting almost entirely of red herrings. It's almost as if what he set out to prove was that, pace Freud, a cigar sometimes really is only a cigar and a coincidence is only a coincidence, without any hidden meaning or motive. And perhaps that's really what Boyd was trying to do, since that is what the therapist's theory of 'Parallelism' amounts to:
Let's say that the world is in essence neutral -- flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It's us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling, purpose, emotion.
       Unfortunately, the vehicle Boyd has chosen -- Lysander -- isn't quite up to the task, making for a rather deflated thriller, populated by too many two-dimensional characters.
       (Much has also been made of how supposedly masterfully Boyd evokes pre-war Vienna, in particular; it's a decent enough effort for a thriller, but it feels far too workmanlike, and doesn't always ring true; desperate bits like forcing Lysander and Freud to meet further detract from the effort.)
       Waiting for Sunrise is a decent enough read for much of the way. Boyd does some of the episodes quite well -- the bombing of the theater-district by the lumbering German Zeppelins is particularly good --, and while the resolution isn't entirely satisfying it's okay. But it feels like a novel that comes nowhere near to living up to its author's grand ambitions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 March 2012

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Waiting for Sunrise: Reviews: William Boyd: Other books by William Boyd under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author William Boyd was born in Ghana in 1952. Educated at the universities of Nice, Glasgow, and Oxford, he was also a lecturer at Oxford. Author of numerous novels he has won practically every major British literary award, save the Booker (for which he has been short-listed).

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© 2012 the complete review

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