Adrian White's Reviews > Waiting for Sunrise

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd
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Feb 18, 12

Read in January, 2011

In my younger and more vulnerable years, William Boyd gave me some advice I've been I've been turning over in my mind ever since . . .

Well, actually, what happened was that I wrote to him after having read An Ice-Cream War and told him how much I enjoyed his writing and that it reminded me of E.M. Forster. I also asked if he would agree to read some of my own work. He did agree - which was particularly nice of him - and he even replied with a few kind words of encouragement. He told me to 'keep writing'. In my youthful naivety and enthusiasm, I thought at first he meant for us to keep in touch but then I grew up a little and realised that he was telling me I should keep trying to be a writer.

So you can probably understand how I've always felt well-disposed towards William Boyd, considering him to be both a great writer and a fine human being. He was listed amongst the first Granta Best of Young British Novelists in 1983, along with the likes of Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie etc. - all of whom I've followed with interest over the years, given the impression they made on me as a young wannabe writer. They all represented something to aspire to but for some reason William Boyd seemed to not quite belong to the same literary club - as though he already knew his own unique path and was determined to follow it come what may.

William Boyd is first and foremost a storyteller, a teller of stories. He writes in clear sentences, builds his characters into substantial entities, and he creates engrossing scenarios that drive a narrative. The 'only connect' failure to communicate awkwardness that characterised An Ice-Cream War - beaten to the Booker Prize in 1982 by Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark - was merely a taste of what was to come. Boyd produced a remarkable run of novels that included The New Confessions, Brazzaville Beach, The Blue Afternoon, and Any Human Heart and each of these books showed off his ability to tackle big themes over an extended time period. Often concentrating on a single protagonist, his stories never failed to reflect the bigger picture surrounding a person's life. I'd say the single most impressive achievement is that you want to know what happens next; not as a mystery to be solved but simply as a matter of interest in the outcome of the story, the resolution of a character's life. And, believe me, that is some achievement.

In 2006, Restless was published by Bloomsbury, Boyd having moved from Penguin Books, and it marked something of a new departure. Almost unashamedly populist, the book won a Costa Book Award and - more tellingly - was on the shortlist for the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year for the British Book Awards. This resulted in the kind of commercial success writers can only dream of and - given how fondly I think of William Boyd - you'd imagine I'd be pleased for him. And I am, only . . .

In switching to an espionage plot with Restless and attempting an almost orthodox thriller with his next book Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd has lost me. I'm not a snob - honest - it's just that he isn't as good at this as are many other writers. What prompted me to sit down and write this piece was my reading of his next book, Waiting for Sunrise, due to be published in early 2012. A literary agent once said to me: 'I enjoyed your book - but not that much.' I did enjoy Waiting for Sunrise - but not that much. There's more subterfuge; there's a return to the trenches of the First World War; there's a fascinating lead character with a story to tell; the problem is I just don't care. By the time I get to the denouement, it doesn't seem to matter who did what to whom and when.

Graham Greene knew how to spin a ripping yarn and William Boyd does too. Greene used to differentiate between his novels and what he called his 'entertainments' and I suspect these later William Boyd books should be categorised as entertainments. What they lack, and what I miss, is that insight into the human heart - the human factor, as Greene would have put it - that so captured my own heart all those years ago.

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