Oh joy! William Boyd’s back on form with his new novel which has its feet firmly planted in Any Human Heart territory. Boyd set off on a thriller trajectory with the excellent Restless, picked up by Richard and Judy back in 2007, which I followed loyally despite an increasing disappointment: Waiting for Sunrise ended up in the charity shop just before my aunt announced that her reading group had chosen it. I’d all but given up on him but the synopsis for Sweet Caress was hard to resist. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century.
Born in 1908, Amory enjoyed an unremarkable childhood. Her father, whose one writing success paid for the family’s comfortable middle class life, entertained his children with handstands, happy to play the fool until, like so many of his generation, he returned from the First World War a changed man. Her uncle Greville’s gift of a camera offers solace, setting Amory off on a path which will lead her across the world. Aged nineteen, after a dramatic end to her studies, Amory finds herself working as Greville’s assistant – hunting down subjects for his London society photographs – then taking the photographs herself. Clearly frustrated by the triviality of her work, Amory takes up Greville’s suggestion of a few weeks in Berlin – famed for its decadence – embarking on an adventure whose photographic results will land her in court. Her encounter with Cleveland Finzi, editor of the American pictorial magazine Global-Photo-Watch, results in both an affair and a further twist in her career leading her to New York, then back to London – documenting the British Union of Fascists with disastrous personal results – then to France, now at war, where she will come into herself. Amory’s life, loves and work play out against the backdrop of events upon the world’s stage in much the way that Logan Mountstuart’s did in what many regard as Boyd’s best novel, Any Human Heart.
Boyd at his best is hard to beat. He’s a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail, seamlessly threading historical bits and pieces through his narrative. As Amory looks back on her life from her cottage on a remote Scottish island in 1977, she weaves vibrant memories through her journal, telling her story and augmenting it with hindsight, scattering hints foreshadowing future events here and there. Just as W. G. Sebald did in his novels, Boyd punctuates his narrative with photographs adding a touch of verisimilitude and allowing him to explore historical asides. His characters are wonderfully fleshed out, entirely believable, and his story is vividly told – the Berlin scenes are particularly striking. There’s even a bit of the thriller in it, but essentially this is a book about war and its consequences: from her father’s psychiatric problems to the Australian photographer with whom she has a brief last fling in Vietnam, war has left a string of casualties running through Amory’s life. A quick check of the acknowledgements tells you that Sweet Caress is a tribute to women war photographers, many of whom Amory encounters from her Berlin friend Hannelore Hahn to the veteran Mary Poundstone who helps establish her in Vietnam. A fine novel, then, both entertaining and enlightening. What a relief!