Early on in William Boyd’s new spy thriller, his hero consults a psychiatrist for help with his impotence. The doctor suggests an unconventional treatment called “parallelism”. Therein lies the grand opportunity for Boyd, one of the great storytellers writing today.
Dandyish English actor Lysander Rief approaches the psychiatrist amid the growing unease of pre-World War I Vienna. His doctor’s “cure” relies on French philosopher Henri Bergson’s theories of the “fonction fabulatrice”, or ability to transport oneself into a parallel universe to construct different realities.
By reimagining historical events, Rief overcomes his handicap, using the ability that is also his workaday skill as an actor. Rief is recruited by Britain’s War Office and uses his talent for inhabiting different forms of the real to trace a deadly leak of secrets from London. This data, encoded and communicated to the Germans via Geneva, affects progress on the Western Front. Our gallant hero must find its source. At this point, the worlds of John Buchan and Erskine Childers intrude.
Sadly, however, Boyd does not really exploit the opportunity to probe this idea for its full creative implications – surprising, given his interest in the spy genre and issues of duplicity and masks. His choice of actor-hero hints at the notion of professional disguise. His structure, which weaves third-and first person narrative, also suggests interplay between the public and the private.
And Bergson’s fonction fabulatrice nods towards Boyd’s own art as creator of stories. But that’s all these are – just suggestions or hints. Boyd’s problem lies mostly in his ramshackle and hackneyed plot.
It recalls the dark deeds of Buchan’s Richard Hannay – and does it in a rather disingenuous way. Twists, coincidences and interrelated characters are all too abundant. Ultimately, it relies on that most frustrating of author’s devices, the sudden denouement that depends on the unravelling of a secret withheld from the reader until the hero explains.
John Le Carré does it so much better. Boyd’s difficulties extend to characters. Often stereotypes, or perversions of them, they fit the idea of masks, but don’t engage the reader. Even Rief remains an enigma. The traitor is labelled “Andromeda”, the beautiful naked girl chained to the rocks in Greek mythology – a bizarre choice for a bureaucratic mole. This Andromeda strains too hard for credibility. Disappointing, after the promise of such recent Boyd novels as Ordinary Thunderstorms and Restless.
WAITING FOR SUNRISE, by William Boyd (Bloomsbury, $36.99).Steve Walker is head of English at King’s College, Auckland.