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Originally published Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'Waiting for Sunrise' asks: What happened in pre-WWI Vienna?

The juicy mix of ingredients in the new novel by William Boyd, "Waiting for Sunrise," includes sex, psychiatry and pre-World War I Vienna.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Waiting for Sunrise'

by William Boyd

Harper, 353 pp., $25.99

Sex, psychiatry and Vienna on the eve of World War I — those are promising ingredients for a novel. And British writer William Boyd makes the most of them in his latest book, "Waiting for Sunrise."

While it doesn't match his masterpieces "Any Human Heart" and "The New Confessions," "Sunrise" marks a strong return to form for Boyd following the choppy, lackluster "Ordinary Thunderstorms" and the polished but almost too-tidy World War II thriller "Restless."

"Sunrise" is a thriller in its way, but its most beguiling passages come in the first two-thirds as it traces the troubles of London actor Lysander Ulrich Rief who, in 1913, has traveled to Vienna seeking a cure for his "anorgasmia" (inability to climax during intercourse). His future marriage to actress Blanche Blondel, he feels, hangs on his ability to get himself sexually sorted out.

This being Boyd, nothing goes according to plan. As Lysander himself notes midway through the book, "My life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with — I'm a passenger on a train but I have no idea of the route it's taking or its final destination."

The first person to send him off-track is the all-too-aptly named Hettie Bull: a fellow psychiatric patient who's also an artist. When she talks him into modeling for her, she uses the session to cure him — pronto! — of his erotic ailments. But she also, within months, lands him in legal difficulties that are as much of a shock to the reader as they are to Lysander.

They necessitate his secret flight from Vienna back to London with the help of British diplomatic and military personnel. Once back in England, he thinks he's free to continue his stage career, even if marriage to Blanche is no longer in the cards. But while he's been distracted, war has been brewing. When it breaks out, he's conscripted into a spy mission (tracking down a top British official who's leaking information to the Germans) that makes the already gnarly events in Vienna still more difficult to read.

Boyd's narrative moves briskly, and his local color — whether he's describing prewar Vienna, subterfuge in neutral Switzerland, an internment camp in Wales for Germans caught in the U.K. when war was declared, or zeppelin bombardments of London once hostilities are underway — is deftly done.

Boyd has fun with the way Lysander's acting abilities help him get out of scrapes — and the way the acting abilities of those around him keep him off-balance. The book is also droll on how easily Lysander's stage-celebrity distracts his would-be helpers in Vienna: "Do you know Ellen Terry? Have you ever met Dolly Baird? What's Mrs Mabel Troubridge really like?"

The advantage of acting in silent films rather than onstage is addressed ("It's so easy — no lines to learn!") while the fine distinctions between love, obsession and craven sexual addiction are pondered.

Oddball subsidiary characters — notably, Lysander's gay uncle Hamo, just back from explorations in Africa — add to the lively swirl of action. Even Freud makes a cameo appearance.

The more somber theme of the novel is stated well into the book: "All history is the history of unintended consequences." And its central question — "What had really happened in Vienna in 1914?" — stays in play until its last few pages.

Intricate plot points do take over character-driven action in the final stretch. But certain wild-card factors, especially those provided by the blithely perverse Hettie, keep things pleasurably unhinged until the end.

Michael Upchurch is a Seattle Times arts writer:

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