I have never read William Boyd before and somehow in my mind I had confused him with Wilbur Smith. This was unjust: Boyd is better.
Lysander Ulrich Rief is an English actor whose widowed mother married a lord; his dead father's brother is an explorer who has a VC. So he is an ordinary chap. At the start of the novel he is waiting to see a psychoanalyst in Vienna in 1913. In the waiting room he meets a British diplomat who later recruits him as a spy and a drug addicted sculptress who later seduces him. An unlikely tale of espionage during the First World War unwinds.
My initial point of reference was Graham Greene who wrote thrillers (which he insisted were 'entertainments' rather than novels) such as Our Man in Havana) but I think that the psychological depth beneath Greene's entertainments is somewhat more profound than this work. I wondered whether it was like Robert Goddard but Goddard plots his historical thriller-mysteries much more tightly than this. Rather, this is a John Buchan-style book and Rief is a modern rewrite of a hero such as Richard Hannay.
It takes a long while to get going. For the first hundred pages, Rief consults his shrink, has a passionate affair, chats to a Slovene officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, and wanders round Vienna (meeting Freud and, possibly, Hitler). The excitement starts on page 111; more than a quarter of the way through. Then it fizzles out again while Rief goes back to England, regenerates his acting career and meets some relatives. Another hundred pages pass before the spy story begins. It stops and starts and stops and starts. On the whole I felt the book would have benefited from some tight editing and I wondered whether Boyd's previous nine novels had persuaded his publishers rather to indulge him.
I also had a problem with the character. Apart from the fact that there is no-one normal, Why on earth would even the amateurish British intelligence of WWI ask Rief to spy for them? He can act, so he can go in disguise. He can speak German fairly fluently. He owes them (although they seem to have selected him and groomed him and put him into the position where he owes them). But as a spy he is pretty incompetent: one disguise offends his dress sense so he takes time off and goes out in different clothes; he tells his real name to the first real professional spy he meets; later he blurts out secret information.
At the end the story is resolved with lots of massive loose ends. I was expecting a really tight web of lies and deceit; in the end most of the possibilities were frittered away.
Boyd has a pleasant writing style. He swaps between narrators, starting and finishing the book in the second person, moving regularly from third person intimate to first person and breaking into play-script dialogue on a couple of occasions. He can draw a character with a few lines, although sometimes he does not go beyond this leaving a cartoon portrait. Some of his descriptions, particularly of colour, are good (though I don't think I have ever seen ox-blood). But these are not enough to lift the book into the literary fiction category.
In short, this fell for me between several stools. It didn't work as a thriller and it wasn't literary fiction. It was a pleasant story but it never rattled along and I found it difficult to suspend my doubts about the authenticity of the leading character. It entertained but it didn't excite, nor did it move me.
Light reading. September 2013; 429 pages
PS: Reading around the book:
Jill on GoodReads points out that Lysander is one of the mortal dupes in Midsummer Night's Dream and as such the "victim of misapplied magic". Possibly the whole book could be read as a comedy in which Lysander's true love is confused by his romantic liaison in the 'forest' of Vienna. But ultimately I think Tony Mac's review sums the book up.
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57