Stylish descent into darkness

WAITING FOR SUNRISE
BY WILLIAM BOYD
Bloomsbury, £18.99
****

Boyd is that rare breed of storyteller who manages to write books that are both thematically rich – nuanced and historical – and red-bloodedly gripping. The screen has a serious crush on him: his 2002 novel Any Human Heart led to an adaptation freshly garlanded by Baftas, and rumour has it more is on the way.

With Waiting for Sunrise we have another espionage novel, and another Englishman in trouble. English actor turned spy Lysander Rief is in Vienna in the particularly piquant year of 1913. Freud was making novel use of the couch; Klimpt and Schiele the canvas across town and Hitler was pacing around feeling angry.

The climate of psycho-sexual exploration informs Rief’s dramatic trajectory. A disciple of Freud diagnoses him him with “anorgasma” – an inability to carry through the sexual act to its end. Rief’s troubling flaw, we learn, is rooted in a childhood trauma. The cure comes along in the form of a sculptress called Hettie Bull – they engage in a luscious affair that frees all sexual oppression, but carries with it a sting when she accuses him of raping her.

The British embassy in Vienna gets him out of his legal pickle but extracts payment in the form of future service to the British government. Which, when war breaks out not long after, leaves Rief at the War Office, in a sticky situation, followed by a tragic one.

The title refers to several occasions in which a distressed Rief is waiting for sunrise. The metaphor is one of yearned-for enlightenment – this is a man who has fallen into darkness. Thanks to Boyd’s skill, following him trying to step out of it is a pleasure.

KIND OF CRUEL
BY SOPHIE HANNAH
Hodder, £12.99
****

A new thriller by former poet Hannah is always an occasion for lip-smacking anticipation. And, unlike with other examples of the genre, these are well-written, psychologically probing works – almost literary (but not quite).

Amber Hewerdine, a forty-something woman with two kids and a caustic wit, is exhausted. She hasn’t been able to sleep properly for a year and a half – since an arson attack that killed her best friend.

Desperate, she goes to visit at hypnotherapist, who guides her back to the painful mystery of her youth, when her whole family disappeared one Christmas morning, then reappeared the next day, refusing to explain what happened, or ever speak of it again.

Suddenly Amber blurts out: “Kind, cruel, kind of cruel”, but has no idea what the words mean, only that she has read them somewhere. Two hours after uttering the words, she is arrested for the murder of a woman she has never met.

Her memory holds the secret to the events of that Christmas, the murder and her own happiness – but how can she unlock it? This is a bold and clever play on the force of the subconscious, with a vigorous characterisation of Amber, a genuinely substantive character, at the heart of it. It’s chilling without the usual fireworks of violence and police chases – and better for it.

RECIPE FOR LOVE
BY KATIE FFORDE
Century, £16.99
**

Katie Fforde is a staple of the chick lit world and a regular on the Sunday Times best-seller list for her cotton-candy stories of love, the countryside and – in this case – the world of cooking competitions. Her ultra-girly heroines do always get their man, which is nice.

Here, Zoe Harper wins a place on a televised cookery programme (every girl’s dream) and finds herself in a bit too deep in rich blue cheese sauce. There’s the problem of her terrifyingly devious competitor Cher, but the main source of tension arises from the terrible crush she has developed on one of the judges, Gideon Irving. Will Zoe win the competition or will Gideon prove her downfall? Just what Zoe will do for love, and cakes, is where the answer lies.

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April 22, 2014, 2:25pm