Sweet Caress by William Boyd

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Reviewed by Harriet 

I’ve read all William Boyd’s novels, and have liked most of them enormously. Over the years he’s played with a number of different genres, including spy stories, crime novels and comedies — and he even channelled Ian Fleming last year — but one thing he seems to be periodically drawn to is life stories. He began with The New Confessions (1987), then there was his ‘biography’, Nat Tate: An American Artist, which caused a furore when it was published in 1998, as numerous big names in the art world claimed to have heard of Tate before he was revealed to be an invention, and perhaps his best known, Any Human Heart (2002), which was brilliantly televised a few years ago with no fewer than four actors playing the increasingly ageing Logan Mountstuart. He’s now returned to the genre of fictional biography with Sweet Caress, the story of Amory Clay, a woman photographer, whose life is traced from her birth in 1908 to her death in 1988.

I quite often listen to audiobooks, and have enjoyed a number of novels this way, but you would lose a huge amount of the pleasure and power of Sweet Caress if you listened to it instead of reading it. Why? Because the book is studded with Amory Clay’s photos. Well, naturally they are not actually Amory Clay’s photos because she is an invented character, and although at the end of the book you’ll find in the Acknowledgments a list of names of just about all the celebrated female photographers working during this period, these are not actually their photos either. Instead, as a fascinating recent article  has revealed, these are all ‘found’ photos, collected by Boyd over the years from French brocantes, American thrift shops, and anywhere else anonymous photos can be acquired. In any case, in this fascinating and absorbing novel, Amory’s life story is told more or less chronologically from childhood to old age, interspersed with extracts from her ‘Barrandale Journal, 1977’. We gather from this that her final years are being spent on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, though why and how she ended up here is something that will only be revealed quite late on in the book.

Meanwhile, as the novel progresses, we see Amory present at, and taking photos of, many of the defining moments of twentieth-century history. Although she starts her career as a society photographer, she longs for something more exciting and challenging, and soon she is in Berlin, photographing sleazy nightclubs and prostitutes in brothels. Back in London (and prosecuted for obscenity following a show featuring the Berlin prints) she photographs a Fascist march and gets beaten up by Blackshirt thugs. In 1944 she ends up in occupied France, her first stint as a war photographer, and then in 1966, by now no spring chicken, she manages to get herself posted to Vietnam.

But Sweet Caress is not just a book about Amory’s career, with all its ups and downs. We also learn about her equally varied personal life, including, quite early on, the startling revelation that her father attempted to kill her and himself by driving his car into a lake.

‘What a mess,’ he said. He put his arm round me and smiled at me, a strange little smile. A mad smile, his eyes dead. ‘I thought the lake was deeper,’, he said. ‘Thought I’d read somewhere that the lake here was exceptionally deep’. ‘Lucky it wasn’t’. ‘You’ve saved my life. Amory,’ he said. Then he began to cry, suddenly, almost howling like an animal. I hugged myself to him and begged him to stop — which he did, quickly, sneezing and coughing, breathing deeply. ‘I’m not well, Amory,’ he said quietly. ‘You have to remember that. You have to forgive me’.

I’m not sure that Amory ever really forgives her father for this, despite his obvious mental illness — certainly it has an effect on her which lasts pretty much all her life. As a teenager she falls desperately in love with her ‘tall, broad-shouldered and good looking’ uncle Greville Reade-Hill, who gets her started on her career but gently reveals to her, when she flings herself into his bed one night, that he is gay. Undeterred, she quickly moves on to a satisfyingly physical relationship with his assistant, the talented rough diamond Lockwood Mower. A visit to New York results in a long lasting and intense love affair with the incredibly attractive (but unfortunately married) magazine editor Cleve Finzi, interspersed with episodes with Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, a middle-aged French author. Finally she marries a dissolute Scottish aristocrat and… But you’ll have to read the story for yourself.

So – yes, this is a fictional biography, or rather autobiography since the narrative voice in Amory’s throughout, whether in the journal of her old age or her memories of her younger years. It’s not all that uncommon these days for a male writer to adopt a female persona, but I’m probably not alone in always wondering how well they are going to get away with it. I had no problem at all in believing in Amory — strong and brave in her tackling of difficult subjects and dangerous venues for her photography, prone to deep emotional attachments but wary of commitment, still carrying the scars of her father’s attempt on their lives and his subsequent long years of insanity. I’m not going to be drawn into a comparison of this novel with Boyd’s earlier works — I’ve never been disappointed by any of them and I certainly wasn’t this time round. Read it, and enjoy!  

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. 

William Boyd, Sweet Caress (Bloomsbury: London, 2015). 9781408867976, 412pp., hardback. 

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