Tuesday 5 June 2012

What (who) I'm reading now

William Boyd is one of those authors whose latest books I’m always excited to read. Restless and Any Human Heart would have to be on my list of all-time favourite novels.

Image source: www.blogarrebatado.com

His latest, Waiting for Sunrise, opens in Vienna in  1913, where Lysander Rief, a young English actor, has come to seek psycho-analysis for a sexual problem with a contemporary of Freud (who we meet briefly in a Viennese kaffeehaus later in the story). A pretty young fellow-patient sorts out his problem rather satisfactorily, but Lysander’s liaison with this slightly unhinged and dangerous young woman leads him into serious trouble with Austrian law.

                           Image source: my own, taken in Vienna December 2011

His successful escape from Vienna in disguise (helped by his acting skill) brings him to the attention of the British secret service who recruit him for spying. By now World War I is in full flow and the story sees Lysander gadding about from war-besieged London to the front lines in France and on secret missions across Europe to trace a traitor in the British War Office. 

The basic theme is of an ordinary person being caught up in dramatic historical events – something Boyd did brilliantly in Any Human Heart. Certainly Lysander Rief starts off an unpromising hero – a pretty, well-off, slightly wimpish young man fairly certain of his place in life. As he’s thrust unwillingly into a series of extraordinary events, he becomes both more self-reliant and less sure of anything, negotiating his way through a slippery world of assumed identities and fake personas. “Nobody really knows what’s real, what’s true” says the traitor he’s engaged to unmask, while Lysander’s actress girlfriend tells him “We’re all acting, aren’t we? Almost all the time – each and every one of us?”

                                       Image source: www.waterstones.com

Both the galloping plot and the cast of characters are hugely entertaining, in rich Boyd style. I especially liked his female characters – from Lysander’s mother to the various younger women he attracts (sculptor, actress, secret agent), they are all strong, substantial and interesting personalities. The only disappointment for me was the ending  -  ultimately too few of the threads connected and I was left frustrated by unanswered questions.

You can hear William Boyd discussing the story here

This would make a wonderful film - one can only hope that someone is onto this, after the excellent BBC mini-series of Any Human Heart which showed last year. I also hear that a film version of Restless is in the making.

       Scenes from the BBC mini-series version of Any Human Heart, from www.guardian.co.uk
And on an entirely unrelated note ... and though I'm no great royalist ... while scanning the BBC's highlights of the jubilee celebrations after returning from spending the weekend away, I did find myself quite touched by this scene here - of the group of RCM chamber choir singers on a rocking boat in the middle of the Thames managing to belt out Land of Hope & Glory with quite such enthusiasm and gusto, despite being completely drenched in the sheeting rain that washed out the river pageant on Sunday. It's a uniquely English moment - do click on the link to watch, if you haven't already seen this.


  1. I have not read any William Boyd but you tempt me to start!
    I rather enjoyed all the Jubilee celebrations from afar!

    1. I'm sure you'd like his books, Elizabeth. And I think telly was probably the best way to enjoy the jubilee!

  2. Cannot believe this, a major English novelist I've never heard of! Neither his books nor the mini series of Any Human Heart seem to have crossed the pond. I will have to look these up, if only for my Anglophile honor.
    That shirt-sleeved, intense photo certainly is promising --
    (Your wonderful Vienna photo looks like vintage Sherlock Holmes footage, preferably starring Jeremy the other one not Irons, and not Benedict Bandersnatch either.)
    We loved the coverage of the Diamond Jubilee, and yes, that chorus singing their hearts out as their hair dripped with rain was very moving.

    1. So glad I've been able to introduce you to someone new, Judith :)

  3. Karen, I think that I might have mentioned before that I am a huge William Boyd fan, and began my enthusiasm when reading his Brazzaville Beach years and years ago.

    Just today, my library reservation request for Waiting for Sunrise finally got me to the front of the queue, and I am now eight pages into the novel and already caught up in the character and atmosphere.

    This somehow reminds me to inquire about another William, whose work I admire. Surely, you know of William Kentridge? I'd meant to mention him when we met at the V&A, and completely forgot.


    1. So glad you're getting to read it, Frances. I think my first introduction to Boyd was A Good Man in Africa.
      And yes, it's a dream of mine to own a drawing or print by Kentridge, though I'm unlikely to ever be able to afford one!

  4. Karen - Having recently replaced my pc/monitor - do you realise just how absolutely fantastic your blog looks on a large screen...?!!

  5. Karen, you make it very hard for me to keep the promise of not buying any new fiction books until I have finished reading the ones waiting in queue by my bedside table (including at least two thanks to your recommendation)!

    I watched quite a bit of the Diamond Jubilee marathon, both Austrian and German TV covered it live (amazing, isn't it?). The intrepid choir singers and the queen's reaction to Prince Charles "mummy" were quite moving.

    Then, I agree with Bella Bheag's comment, your blog's a feast for the eyes!

  6. I've read so much about this book on the beeb and the Guardian
    I love spy thrillers and espionage...
    maybe why stealth pastry shooting is such a fav activity, though I doubt much pastry is mentioned in Boyd's new book.
    Thanks for the Hope & Glory clip - quite moving K.


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