For William Boyd's war-photographer heroine, life is a series of accidents

Boyd has captured a certain female voice perfectly in his superbly written and desperately moving novel, Sweet Caress

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

Sweet Caress William Boyd

Bloomsbury, pp.464, £18.99, ISBN: 9781408867976

Amory Clay, photographer and photo-journalist, was born in 1908, only two years after Logan Mountstuart, writer, poseur and ‘scribivelard’. Amory died in 1983; Logan in 1991. Though shaped by the same era, their accounts of their lives are tonally worlds apart. Logan is flamboyant, self-regarding, lyrical, self-pitying; Amory plainer, braver, yet less self-revealing.

Both, of course, are fictional, and both are protagonists woven by William Boyd into novels where they rub shoulders with historical characters. Amory, however, born into an era in which Vivians, Evelyns and Beverleys could be of either sex, is female.

Boyd’s representation of a certain sort of female voice is pitch-perfect, chiefly because he is not trying too hard to signal Amory’s femininity. (It is a good rule of thumb that a bad female impersonator will be altogether too conscious of ‘her’ underwear.) Boyd is interested in a female who is attempting not to be defined by her gender; and there are plenty of pioneering female photographers and journalists as models, to whom Boyd plays tribute at the end of Sweet Caress. It is typical of Boyd, however, that he slips some invented characters into the list alongside the likes of Martha Gelhorn and Diane Arbus.

Logan Mountstuart’s life was told through ‘his’ journals; Amory Clay’s is an ‘autobiography’, written for her descendants, and distanced further by framing her memories within vignettes of the ‘present’, 1977, when Amory is living in an isolated cottage on a Scottish island, with a loyal labrador and a bottle of whisky as her chief comforts. Her evocation of the past is less immediate, less theatrical, less vivid, less repellent and yet less engaging. If all this sounds negative, then it is fair to warn that those who expect a female version of Any Human Heart will be disappointed.

The thinner and grainier texture of the writing is, however, deliberate. Boyd is exploring the nature of real-life memoirs, which, like photographs, depend on our belief in their unglossed relationship with fact. If they are too literary we suspect that, like too-perfect photographs, they are manipulating the truth. This notion is reinforced by the inclusion, throughout Sweet Caress, of amateur period photographs, purporting to be the work of Amory. These do raise a query about how she could hold down a job as a professional photographer; but Boyd makes plain her private fondness for unsaleable ‘bad-crop’ shots: the only wedding photograph she keeps is by a rank amateur.

The opening chapters of Amory’s life are reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s account of her parents, who were both damaged by the war, leaving her father crippled by shrapnel, and her mother with ‘hard, bundling hands, impatient arms’. Similarly, Amory’s mother

managed to conceal whatever affection she felt for her children with great success. She had two expressions she used all the time: ‘I don’t like a fuss’ and ‘Put that in your pipe and smoke it.’

Amory’s only pre-war memory of her father is ‘of him doing a handstand in the garden’; but after the war, headaches from his wounds meant ‘he did it less and less’; and his writing, too, dried up. On the first page of the first chapter, we are told that he tried to kill Amory.

Amory’s account of this event is typical. Entirely unmelodramatic, she has internalised the maternal lesson never to be a ‘fuss-pot’. Still reasoning in a crisis, she seems to cope admirably, and describes it with directness and clarity.

Yet the book explores the limitations of this apparent honesty, and apparent self-control. She is more ‘complicated’ — a key word in the novel — and more damaged than she can admit. There are knots of opaque darkness within her, beyond reason and will, out of which her decisions arise —particularly when it comes to her love life.

On the surface, Amory Clay, admirably determined, takes charge of her life to become a professional photographer, covering London parties, Berlin brothels, Blackshirt riots, and war in the Vosges in 1944 and in Vietnam in 1968. Clear-eyed despite the haze of constant cigarettes and gin, she describes war-zones, life in a vast, decaying Scottish shooting-lodge, a Californian commune…Yet her choice of men is dismaying, and her integrity does not prevent her two-timing her lovers, twice. The reasons for her choices are not clear, even to her: she can, and does, describe their penises in meticulous detail, but not why these men attract her. To the reader, however, the legacy of damage from her childhood is evident; and it is no accident that she marries the suitor most traumatised by the war.

For those who appreciate a novel in which emotional life is sensed at the edges of what is said, this is a masterly portrait. And the final chapters, in which Amory tries, with typical courage, to take ultimate control of her life, and then finds further courage to recognise the limitations of control, are superbly written and desperately moving.

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  • davidshort10

    I read this book during one day on holiday last week in Malta and as usual was impressed by Boyd’s work and I, too,, compared it to Any Human Heart, which is a masterpiece (as is his New Confessions). The review is slightly a spoiler because it is not until you pass through the first few pages that you realise the narrator is a female. Boyd is one of the very few authors who can convincingly write from a female perspective (well, convincingly to this male contributor). He did it previously in Brazzaville Beach. Another writer who succeeded was Ian Fleming, in the short story The Spy Who Loved Me. It is not a very crowded list.