Not your usual espionage novel, Boyd’s Edwardian saga exposes the facade of wealthy Viennese society with its shining mercantile life while spy networks ferment underneath. Looking behind the veneer of
empire, we see the germination of a new kind of psychological practitioner. With his mind full of pleasurable and troubling thoughts, British actor Lysander Rief travels to Vienna to attend the office of Dr. Bensimon.
He fails to predict his own involvement in this rapidly changing world.
Lysander’s sexual problem continues to plague him.
He’s shamefully haunted by thoughts of his younger life, his dark secret fueling a retrospective disgrace that blazes through him even after all these years. Half-naked and exposed, Lysander tells Dr. Bensimon
about that one afternoon in June 1900, when he was just a fourteen-year-old boy lying under an oak tree in Claverleigh Wood. This recounting of Lysander’s darkest riddle produces a form of catharsis but also hides this actor’s need for a newer and less tainted outlook on life.
Lysander wants to seek a cure on his own terms, but when he meets androgynous Miss Hettie Bull, he’s at first vaguely excited and then troubled by this provocative woman. When she tells him she wants to sculpt him, he ends up being drawn “willy-nilly into her orbit," shocked and exhausted by her sexual ferocity. Strolling the streets of this now-familiar foreign city, Lysander enjoys a muted undertone and a thin, almost enjoyable melancholy, until the advent of lust with Hettie kicks his life into high gear.
An expected sense of danger sets the tone for the story with a sad acceptance that Lysander will probably never trust anyone ever again. Things go amiss after an arrest which
initially seems a terrible mistake. While the snowy vistas of Vienna roll by and “the monuments of this old-new city flashing like something in a stereoscope,” Boyd portrays his reluctant anti-hero as an intensely moral man with a keen sense of the sensual as he travels between the rarefied worlds of spy networks and surreptitious conversations with British agents.
An intelligent individual who mostly thinks on his feet, Lysander is forced to rely his ingenuity and his acting skills, enduring a nightmarish parallel world where reality and imagination fuses.
When he finds himself out of his depth, he tries to keep himself distracted and amused even though he’s aware of a steadily increasing undercurrent of unease flowing beneath the surface of his shattered life.
Although the novel is a bit overlong and lacking any real sense of suspense, the past is made vibrant and alive as Boyd highlights those who will become Lysander’s emotional anchor in a life
spinning out of control with all of the random elements of good and bad luck. The landscape of a fractured Europe hurtles into chaos faster than ever.
In great sociological detail, Boyd portrays a world on the move, an eerily modern early twentieth century galloping forward with its vast and chaotic military machine.
In this story of the wounded, the incomplete and the unbalanced, the characters Lysander will encounter all bear the brutal scars of war. Tying his story to real events, the author waxes both on the fringes of belle-epoch Vienna and later on the wintry streets of London, crafting his hero as
a typical young man and our cipher to a series of divided loyalties, lechery, and ever-changing landscapes of moral corruption and virtue.