13/02/2012 11:16 GMT | Updated 11/04/2012 06:12 BST

Book Review - Waiting For Sunrise by William Boyd

For a man who once listed 'idleness' as his guiltiest pleasure, the novelist, screenwriter, journalist and viticulturalist William Boyd doesn't half get stuff done.

Fresh from a Bafta-winning adaptation of his 2002 novel Any Human Heart, and midway through adapting his 2006 novel Restless for the BBC, the Boyd factory fabricates another tale, which will, no doubt in time, add to his growing list of adaptations for the screen.

His latest work, Waiting For Sunrise, is, like many of Boyd's novels, set largely in wartime. And, again not unusually, features a young male protagonist in some form of flight.

Along with previous works such as A Good Man in Africa, Armadillo, Stars and Bars and Ordinary Thunderstorms, this new offering is firmly in the camp of what screenwriters like to call 'Dude with a problem.'

Here, the not instantly likeable Lysander Rief has left the trappings of the London stage for Austria in order to find 'the Viennese cure' for his psycho-sexual ailment. Once a cure is haphazardly discovered, his real problems begin. His world is turned upside down after a chance meeting with the enigmatic and elfin Hettie Bull who first takes his clothes, then his liberty.

At that point, the tale suddenly takes off into Tinker Tailor territory via Measure for Measure, and even has an Edwardian version of Bruce Robinson's Uncle Monty.

Waiting For Sunrise examines the idea that we may control our lives more exactly by re-capitulating certain important memories or key moments which shaped the current self. Where Julian Barnes' latest protagonist (and unwitting villain) Tony Webster finds himself duped by an unrealistically constructed history, Rief is encouraged by the avuncular Dr. Bensimon to re-construct a flashpoint in his life in order to cancel the cause of his trauma.

In the psychiatrist's chair, Rief, fittingly an actor (Stanislavski's emotion memory ideas were in full flight by 1913), is instructed to re-imagine a traumatic childhood scene and then, through replaying it in the memory, come to believe that the re-write is the true version. Dr. Bensimon calls this Parallelism, a reworking of Henri Bergson's fabulation function.

"Let's say that the world is in essence neutral - flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It's us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling, purpose and emotion. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want."

Boyd is on home turf here. The world being one part nature, one part human perception is a concept exalted by the Romantic poets, not least Percy Bysshe Shelley, himself the subject of Boyd's unfinished PhD. But where the romantic perception gave power to the subject viewed, Parallelism seeks to deny the truth of the past and remove its effect. From the way they wrote about the human mind, one could view the Romantic poets as early psychologists who simply lacked a framework. The ability to prove their suspicions eluded them. Had they possessed the tools of Freudian psychoanalysis, matters may have been clearer. And who should make an amusingly understated cameo in the novel? Freud himself; begging the question: is this a psychological novel? Yes. No. Aren't they all?

Psychoanalysis exists within the novel as a part of the plot and serves to highlight the function of a personal diary, but it isn't a subtext any more than it is with any novel involving humans and emotions. It provides the occasion for analysis and, in fact, goes some way to suggest that may be the limit of its utility. Some readers will no doubt get a sniff of Freud and expect all manner of theory-based tangents and in jokes (well, there is one with the mother, to be fair) but there is no real value attached to it.

The diary has become a common Boydean (surely he is prolific enough to be attributed his own adjective?) device and is the perfect expression of self-fictionalisation. You can re-remember something far more easily if you write it down. The written word is documented history, after all.

The narrative switches between these 'Autobiographical Investigations' and 3rd person prose. Rief tries to understand the effect that his foil, Hettie, has on him by writing a short treatise on personal attraction, but in the prose we come to understand that the real effect she has is that of a catalyst. They are in many ways opposites - he drifts as she develops. Yet they are both sexless in their own way - he anorgasmic and she barren. But soon circumstances see him thrown from the well-lit, modern art studio to a place of darkness and solitude, to a place more psychological than emotional, a place where rescue only thrusts him deeper into obscurity.

As the novel's timeline edges into war, masquerade becomes at once necessary and deadly. The actor plies his trade when forced by obligation into working for British Intelligence, but he doesn't know who to trust on his own side, as a selection of shadowy authority figures run Rief as a field investigator in a particularly serious case of treason. All the while, the eerily symbolic Bas-relief in Bensimon's office hangs over the story, objectifying a surplus of surface and asking us how much we can truly understand a world where everyone has something to hide.

War has long preoccupied Boyd, the horrors of which served as a ghoulish watermark to his formative years in Africa where censorship of graphic television images did not exist. Reportage of the Biafran war in the late 60's and early 70's was beamed into his home without the courtesy of editorial restraint. Lysander Rief experiences his own wartime horror image, a memory that clings to his retina and makes him fear the playback function he doesn't control - his dreams. Seeing remorse and sadness in the central character is something of a relief. Many of Boyd's characters have an edge of cold about them, possibly due to the amount of calculation they have to do. His protagonists, however, with the help of the diary device, are often able to offer a refreshingly honest account of the human condition. The culmination of these elements is bleakness. Are we to never know the truth about any other person? Are we continually, fruitlessly waiting to be enlightened? Waiting, like Rief in his cell, for the sun to come up?

War and truth are unlikely bedfellows. One thinks of Baudrillard and his notion of the Gulf War only having truly existed on television. Boyd's use of Hemmingway's "A thing is true at first light and a lie by noon" as an epigraph has much relation to the current and no doubt enduring preoccupation with rolling news. Facts can turn out not to be facts at all, and either way they can change.

A seeming/being dialectic is fully at work here. Rief's landlady at the pension-cum-brothel will not discuss anything that doesn't befit the adjectives "nice" and "pleasant" and yet pretence is anathema to contemporary art darling Udo, who defines the new architecture in Vienna as a bourgeois sham.

"New buildings masquerading as something ancient and venerable. Shameful."

But what of women? The "river of sex" is a constant undercurrent in all our lives, says psychoanalysis, but in this novel the river of gender is pretty shallow. Engagement is a problem (both figuratively and literally) and a depth of character is difficult to fathom in any of the female characters. Hettie, chief amongst them, is certainly an oddball, but her story is left out. They appear sketchy, like the crudely drawn sex objects of Hettie and Lysander's Viennese contemporary, Egon Schiele, or the flitty, one-dimensional gaspers of Edwardian melodrama.

It has been said of Boyd's last two works, Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, that he had ventured into genre fiction, more specifically thriller writing. Certainly, they were more of a type than anything since his unapologetically farcical Stars and Bars. Waiting For Sunrise is, in that sense, a return to form, and yet it retains a consistent intrigue and a splendidly intricate plot, making the deviation, if it be so deemed, a wholly worthwhile exercise.

The denouement plays out with characteristic suspense and masterful design, allowing Rief to half-triumph with the help of musical Uncle Hamo - whom Boyd hilariously casts as the cavalry. But it is only a momentary victory in the scheme of things. The protagonist's roundedness as a character has ended by trading spotlight for shadow.

The fact that Rief's personal problem was cured rather too quickly to be totally believable is secondary to how well the fabulation concept illuminates (albeit with stage-lighting) the novel as a whole. From self-fictionalisation to the total fiction of an alias, Rief exists in a strangely lit world, an Alpengluhen under which clarity is hard to come by.

"I do not see hope / Hope does not see me," he writes.

Although bleakness exists here on a theoretical level, it is far from the feeling a reader gets from reading Waiting For Sunrise. There is little doubt that Boyd has a whale of a time as a writer. His sense of humour is pleasantly wry and he has a marvellous talent for inventing names. The stage comedy in which Lysander stars is The Amorous Ultimatum by Kendrick Balston. This is laughably plausible. This talent is just one by-product of a truly remarkable imagination, and it may be this gift of Boyd's (to say nothing of his dedication to research) that keeps us fascinated by his novels. It's quite a canon already, long may it continue.

Waiting For Sunrise is published by Bloomsbury on 16 February.