There's nothing more boring than other people's dreams. And the reason is obvious: Common sense, let alone artistry, plays no role in the construction of a dream, and the human motivations manifested therein tend to be absurd, incredible or just plain missing. The novelist who sets out to write a novel that is dreamlike, therefore, takes on a challenge fraught with risk. Unless that novelist is William Boyd.
Boyd is like certain actors – Gary Oldman comes to mind – who are so convincing, so different from role to role that viewers may be forgiven for not realizing they have enjoyed their work, perhaps even many times, before.
He has tackled a variety of subjects in vastly different settings, from science to modern art to espionage, from Central Africa to the American South. If he were less ambitious, this prodigiously talented author might be even more widely acclaimed (he has won numerous awards and regularly hits the bestseller lists) than he already is.
His new novel, Waiting for Sunrise, takes us to Vienna, 1913, where Lysander Rief, a twentysomething British actor, is seeking the newly fashionable cure of psychoanalysis. In the course of his treatment, he meets and falls for a mysterious woman who lures him into an enthralling sexual adventure, only to turn around and charge him with rape.
Rief's only escape is to flee the country, and he is aided in this by two British diplomats, beautifully drawn, who will later extract a price that keeps escalating.
He is settling back into the life of a successful stage actor when war comes and the "diplomats" turn up with an offer he can't refuse. Rief's acting experience and knowledge of German are too good to resist, and he is tapped to go behind enemy lines in search of a traitor who threatens the British war effort. Thus, he goes from actor-patient to lover-suspect to soldier, spy and secret investigator with dizzying speed. Dreamlike indeed.
The other thing about dreams is, no matter how outlandish the incidents or how nebulous the "connections," the dreamer wanders through them with a sense of inevitability. Thus the profound terror when the events are painful, and the deep satisfaction when they prove ego-enhancing. The storyteller's task is to instill in the reader that same sense of reality. The more dreamlike the incidents, obviously, the more difficult the task.
But Boyd, in complete control of his tools and materials, succeeds at this brilliantly, switching from first person to third, from past tense to present, from tenderness to confusion to violence – while never dropping the thread of his story. Actors? Analysts? Spies? "We're all acting, aren't we?" says one, and "nobody really knows what's real, what's true," says another. You couldn't assemble a better cast for a tale where familiar figures keep popping up out of context, unaccountably changed and yet … the same.
Boyd's plot is such a grabber it would be easy to forget that he is also evoking a historical era. With this and previous works, he has set himself firmly in that circle of top-flight British novelists – Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan – who are exploring the timeline of their parents' and grandparents' lives with curiosity and sympathy, and yet without a trace of sentimentality.
It's difficult to convey the pleasures of this novel – so rich with surprises and reversals, so rife with false friends and treacherous "saviours" – without spoiling them. Let me just say that when Rief's analyst suggests he keep a dream journal, the reader is at no risk of being bored. This is a terrific yarn, but it's also a complex work full of telling detail and rich in allusions literary, mythical and psychological.
Still, it's only fair to close with a word of warning. If ever you should find yourself saying to your therapist, as Rief does, "I'm not Oedipus," just make sure you have a ticket in your pocket and your passport is in order – oh, and check up on your mum.
Giles Blunt's new novel, Until the Night, will be published in August.