Fighting over William Boyd – and the lost art of plotting

There are not many books that I read that I pass on to Mark. (I used to try, but the sight of all those books I’d love mouldering unread was too dispiriting).
But there are a few new authors I think he will like that he will find snuck onto his reading pile.
And there are a few that we fight over.
So thank you Bloomsbury for giving us an advance proof of ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ by William Boyd (definitely one of the perks of the job). Particularly as I was able to read it first.
Of course it meant I was up to past midnight clinging on to the tense last few chapters, desperate to know how it all ended, but not wanting the book to finish.
So what it is about William Boyd that makes him such a must-read author? Both a commercial and a literary success? And one who appeals to both men and women?
The book opens in Vienna just before the First World War. Lysander Rief is staring at a rather raunchy poster advertising a new opera.
What I love about the opening is not just the fact that the monster on the poster is described as ‘squamous’ and the fact that I am rather nerdy and like authors who use words that have me scurrying for the dictionary (squamous = scale-like).
But I also really admire the fact that the poster is a key motif of probably four separate parts of the story. But the poster is dropped in, just like that at the beginning, almost as if it is irrelevant.
I suppose ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ could be described as a thriller. But not the breathless, plunge-through-the-pages story that you have instantly forgotten the minute you have closed the cover.
I liked the fact that Rief doesn’t start out as a hero. He’s an amiable, if not particularly enviable character. Easily led astray by bad women and stronger men.
‘Waiting for Sunrise’ is the story of an English actor who gets caught up in wartime and behaves in surprising ways and finally unmasks a devious traitor in a double, treble even quadruple bluff.
It’s also the journey of a decent (though vaguely louche) individual into becoming quite a brilliant spy who is also accepting of casual and regular violence.
I like that the twists and turns of the plot – the unexpected outcomes and shootings, friendships and betrayals, but that all of it woven into a tapestry so that each strand builds on what has gone before.
The poster, Vienna, an incident in Vienna that leaves Rief in debt to the British government, his ability to speak German. The outbreak of war. It all leads through to a brilliant conclusion, and I do wonder if part of his appeal is the fact that he takes the trouble with such sublime plotting. Plotting seems to be rather a lost art.
I love the way he writes about flesh and blood women and the fact of women often being his downfall (including his mother). Plus Boyd even takes the time of detailed description of the clothes of all these femmes fatales. They are interesting, rather than for decorative purposes. I like that.
There is a strong cast of supporting folk – army folk looking blandly similar in their uniforms, but bringing with them all their baggage from their former civilian lives and all having their own hidden agendas to play out.
And I did like the fact that by the end Rief could be considered to have behaved better than one might have expected, proved himself to be resourceful, brave and clever. But he also cannot sleep at night due to one incident he can’t forget, when two ‘innocent’ Germans were killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Rief was ‘just following orders’.
Perhaps I like Boyd’s writing because he has a rare ability never to tell the same story twice. ‘An Ice-Cream War’ ‘Stars and Bars’ ‘Any Human Heart’.
Perhaps it’s just that he does every element of storytelling just so well. Perhaps it just adds up to the fact that there is more than a spark of genius in Boyd’s writing. To craft something with a suspenseful, though thought-provoking story, a cast of well-fleshed characters and a truly zingy plot and to bring them all together. Reading William Boyd definitely feels like you are listening to the whole orchestra.

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