Sweet Caress by William Boyd, book review: The novelist's new mystery is his best in years

William Boyd's novel puts an intrepid female photographer at its heart. It is his best work since 'Reckless', finds Mary Hoffman

Mary Hoffman
Thursday 30 July 2015 13:17 BST
In camera: William Boyd, near his home in London
In camera: William Boyd, near his home in London

I don't recommend looking up Sweet Caress + photos on your search engine. It starts off harmlessly enough with kittens and horses but rapidly deteriorates. My excuse is that I was trying to find the origin of the pictures William Boyd uses in this latest novel. His subject, Amory Clay, is a photographer at a time when it was not an altogether respectable career for a woman (the character is born in 1908).

The title is apparently a quotation, in translation, from a book by Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau who turns out to be a character in the novel, one of a handful of Amory's lovers. How intra-textual! But for readers of a certain age it may scream Everly Brothers and spoil the mood.

There's a snapshot on the frontispiece, of Amory bathing in a pond, aged 20, and more photos follow thick and fast: her mother on a beach, images from a night club in Berlin, a dead German soldier in France. There's even one of the fictional Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. It's not a new genre; it's been tried by novelists from Virginia Woolf to Jonathan Safran Foer. The French term, I discover, is "phototexte".

So, clever-clever or effective? Well, it is an utterly compelling read and Boyd's best novel since Restless (Sweet Caress is not a thriller like Restless but there are surprises and twists until the end. And there is a sinister interlude involving the SAS, the sort of thing Boyd excels at). The images give just the reader just the right amount of unease about what sort of a book it is. This is quite deliberate, Boyd taking pleasure in wrong-footing us, as when Amory, the narrator of her own life story, casually drops on the first page that her father tried to kill her.

Boyd does give you that scene – the war-scarred parent driving himself and his beloved first-born into a lake in the hope of finishing his life in company – but the offhand reference early on is unbalancing. It takes a while to see just what effect it will have on Amory's emotional life.

Father is duly confined to an asylum and the important man in her life becomes her uncle Greville, a society photographer, who gives Amory her first job. But it isn't satisfactory and, again with Greville's help, she ends up in Berlin, secretly taking photos in a brothel and a subterranean after-hours night club.

It's a brave writer who ventures into the world of pre-war Berlin after Christopher Isherwood's definitive novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin (which became the play, I am a Camera and the musical, Cabaret) but Boyd pulls it off: Amory is a camera, almost literally, though her friend and fellow-photographer Hannelore Hahn is no Sally Bowles. In fact Hahn turns out to be real and gets an acknowledgment at the end, as one discovers in another of those vertiginous Escher-like moments that this novel delights in.

The narrative of Amory's life, divided into parts with dates, is interleaved with entries from a journal written in the late 1970s as she approaches 70, and is living alone in a remote part of Scotland. The voice is assured; at first, a mention of what she is wearing on significant occasions seems like Boyd's way of saying "this is how a woman thinks" but over time it becomes clear that this is an aspect of Amory's complex identity.

She has a sister, who becomes a famous concert pianist, and whose photograph duly appears in the text, and also a brother, Xan Clay, who fights in the Second World War and is one of the "Vertical Poets" at Oxford (Boyd makes Xan up but if you look up Vertical Poets you will find an Argentinian whose work doesn't look at all vertical in the way Xan's does).

Amory's work takes her to New York, to Paris, to France and Germany at the end of the Second World War and eventually, after a long domestic interlude, to Vietnam. In some of these scenes she is a kind of cross between Marie Colvin and Martha Gellhorn, impetuous and risk-taking. This is part of her character: when she covers a British Union of Fascists march in London in 1934, the consequences are serious. It's the same with her love life – though the number of her lovers is tiny compared with the notches on her sister's bedpost. But the affairs overlap inconveniently and she finds herself in some messy situations. You don't have to approve of Amory to find her fascinating. I wasn't entirely convinced by Amory's gynaecological and obstetric history, though Boyd does appear to have done his research. Presumably he is on surer ground when Amory describes in some detail the physical endowment of her first few lovers. It is in her psychology that Boyd excels. In one moment of insight, about a third of the way through the novel, Amory writes in her journal, referring to the things that go wrong in a house and the adjustments we make, rather than getting them fixed. She compares these with the ailments of the body: "We make do, favour the right leg, use the left hand, slip a paperback under the armchair where the castor should be. It amazes me what compromises we happily live with. We limp along, patching up, improvising."

In a question-and-answer interview that Boyd did nearly a decade ago, he reflected that "The last thing you know about yourself is your effect." Amory experiences this when she stumbles on a novel by her old lover Jean-Baptiste in which the female lead character is clearly based on her – a "roman à Clay" as she ruefully jokes. But she is not amused: "It's like overhearing other people discussing you, unaware of your presence. You are confronted with your effect – the last thing anyone knows about themselves."

The effect of Amory is that of an interesting woman with a life well-lived, who is not content to sit back and be beautiful as an adored wife or mistress. She grasps every opportunity with both hands, wherever it leads her. Not a bad epitaph, and a tribute to Boyd's skill that we miss her like a friend when we, and she, reach the end.

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