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Adrian Turpin

Secrets and Lysander

Waiting for Sunrise
By William Boyd (Bloomsbury 353pp 18.99)
Boyd: Victorian ease

Where does William Boyd sit in the pantheon of living British novelists? Is he a big beast like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan? Or is he a sort of superior Sebastian Faulks, purveyor of smooth middlebrow fiction that flatters the readers' discrimination without pushing them too much? Of the aforementioned writers, Boyd is certainly the most Victorian, writing with an ease - deceptive or otherwise: for all one knows, he may tear his hair out with writer's block - mirrored in the great serially published novels of the nineteenth century.

It's not just his facility that is Victorian either. Had Dickens written about Scotland, he might have come up with something like the depiction of Edinburgh's Royal Mile that graces the start of The New Confessions, where a nation's conflicted psyche is embodied in the description of the city's tenement buildings: the world's first skyscrapers double as soot-stained slums. In Waiting for Sunrise, the classical architecture of 1913 Vienna represents a way of life soon to be swept away. The approaching war isn't the only thing that threatens the Habsburg capital's old order. Dr Freud, his acolytes and rivals are practising the new science of psychotherapy. The city is the perfect place for Lysander Rief, a young English actor with an Austrian mother, to seek help from English exile Dr Bensimon.

Lysander is a familiar character type to Boyd fans. The name, resonant in a can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it way, like his fictional forebears Hope Clearwater and Lorimer Black? Check. An uncanny ability to turn up, Zelig-like, wherever the action is? Check. A tendency towards narcissism? Check - and check again. He's an actor after all. A curious aspect of Boyd's work is the way he commands sympathy for the disagreeable: a legacy perhaps of the early, comic novels, where fallibility is a given and to be indulged.

Lysander's problem is a failure to achieve orgasm during sex. Bensimon speculates that the condition is rooted in his patient's childhood, during which Lysander wrongly accused the son of one of his stepfather's estate workers of sexually assaulting him. The therapist's treatment - which, inspired by the philosopher Henri Bergson, he calls 'parallelism' - entails Lysander undergoing hypnosis to create an alternative past, one in which his life-shattering lie never happened. Cured, he soon embarks on a clandestine affair with another of Bensimon's patients, Hettie Bull, a highly strung and highly sexed sculptor.

The more one considers Bensimon's therapy, the more troubling it seems. 'The world is created by us as a "fiction",' the doctor explains. 'It is ours alone and is unique and unshareable.' But this theory of 'fabulation', which Lysander accepts so unquestioningly, admits no guilt, no empathy with other people's suffering, no attempt to learn from experience. Falsely accused of rape himself, Lysander is too solipsistic to see the irony. To the reader, it couldn't be clearer.

No matter. With war brewing, moral obtuseness and suggestibility are about to become assets - especially in the hands of a German-speaking English actor. Back in London, Lysander is in hock to British intelligence after fleeing Austrian justice. Sent undercover to Switzerland to find the key to a German code, he shows little compunction in using torture to attain the information. The power of parallelism soothes any lingering qualms.

These philosophical and ethical niceties offer an intriguing counterpoint to what might otherwise be a rather straightforward, if stylishly written, thriller. Boyd's minor characters tend towards filmic minimalism: a pout here, a moustache there, holding the space with utmost economy. It's particularly noticeable with his women, who tend to be distinguished by the degrees of sexual heat that they give off: grande dame, bluestocking, vamp, etc.

But 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.

The book's final movement details his efforts to unmask a traitor leaking secrets from the War Office. In classic thriller fashion, a villain is identified, and motives are spelt out. It is our choice whether to believe it or continue to seek an explanation in the book's web of paranoia and conspiracy. Either way, like Lysander shorn of his prewar certainties, we'll never know for sure.

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Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival and writes for the Financial Times.

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