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There is a very curious passage at the start of William Boyd’s latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise. We are introduced to the story in the second person:

You are standing in a skewed pentangle of lemony sunshine at the sharp corner of Augustiner Strasse and Augustinerbastei …

Now I have no problem with the second person in literature. Some books use it very well (Molly Zero by Keith Roberts), though since the advent of role-playing games I think the device has tended to be over-used and generally not well done.

What is curious about Boyd’s use of the form is that he uses it to introduce his central character, Lysander Rief, and then immediately turns us away from the character:

Ah, he’s English — how uninteresting — your curiosity is waning. You turn around and wander back …

From that moment on, having effectively made the reader turn our back upon the novel’s central character, the book reverts to conventional third-person narration with occasional first-person passages quoted from Rief’s notebook. Now Rief really isn’t that uninteresting a character, he’s an actor who becomes a spy during the First World War, he is resourceful, engaged, and caught up in great events. Yet he is essentially surfaces, which is perhaps why our attention is intended to slip off him at the start.

Boyd returns to the second-person only at the very end of the novel. Now we are trying to follow Rief, there is something about him that catches our attention, but Rief himself moves from shadow to shadow to avoid our gaze.

That movement between the two second-person passages sums up the whole development of the novel. (Oh there’s plenty of plot, a little bit too much in places, but I’ll leave that for you to explore.) This is a story of someone who starts in the open and unseeable, and ends in the shadows and unmissable.

It is what makes a novel that can, at times, feel rather trite, end up seeming really very good indeed.

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