Sweet Caress by William Boyd: A welcome return to Any Human Heart territory

Cover image 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!

17 thoughts on “Sweet Caress by William Boyd: A welcome return to Any Human Heart territory”

  1. I haven’t read William Boyd but was aware of the earlier novels you mention. This sounds much more my kind of thing, the setting and time period are very appealing.

    1. I stuck doggedly with him through the thrillers but was delighted by Sweet Caress as I’m sure you can tell from my review. Any Human Heart is also excellent, Ali, and it’s in paperback. I hope you’ll try them.

  2. O yay ! So glad he’s back on form . As you say , at his best he is very hard to beat…..and I had almost given up on him too . Thought Sweet Caress was dire ! Will def be reading this

  3. This return to form can’t come quick enough. I used to love his work but the last two novels held no interest and I’d given up hope he would find his way back to the strengths of his early work. But it’s clear from your reaction that Sweet Caress should be on my Christmas wish list.

    1. Oh, definitely! I’m so pleased he’s abandoned the thriller rut and returned to what he does best. It’s a thoroughly satisfying read.

  4. Haven’t read any WB – do like the sound of this one & Any Human Heart…

    ‘Waiting for Sunrise ended up in the charity shop just before my aunt announced that her reading group had chosen it’ … made me chuckle! Just seen a movie of the same name, now wondering if it was an adaptation.

    1. Get yourself off to a bookshop immediately, Poppy. You won’t be disappointed. It was a difficult moment with my aunt, knowing she was about to read something that I knew she wouldn’t enjoy.

  5. I picked this up from the library just a couple of hours ago. I’ve seen some very mixed reviews, so I’m glad someone whose opinion I trust is telling me that it is going to be worth the reading.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Alex. I know reviewers have been divided by it, but for me, it’s a welcome return to form.

    1. You’re welcome, Caroline. I hope he’s well and truly through his thriller period and that we can look forward to more like this.

  6. Pingback: Books of the Year 2015: Part 3 | A Life In Books

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