Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

by Robert A. Parker

I am always pleased with Boyd’s novels, and I am yet again with this 2015 novel. It is truly a professional work. It is similar to what he has written before, but it is also different. It is similar in capturing the full life of a person, not just a dramatic portion of that life. And it is different in two ways. More significantly, it stretches beyond the meaning of one particular life; it explores the existence of life itself in the context of the 20th century. Less significantly, it is about a woman, Amory Clay. She is a photographer, whose profession confronts her with the era’s many moments of history.

But it is less as a photographer that we get to know her. It is more as a woman, a wife, and a lover. What we do learn about her interior life comes from a 1977 journal, in which she reviews past events of her life at age seventy. But these journal entries offer author Boyd a second purpose, which is to give a perspective to her far ranging personal and professional life. And also to tie together those life experiences that have no real connection.

Thus, the reader first experiences her family life, highlighted when her father, suffering from a horrendous World War I experience, attempts asuicide drowning  in the family car, with Amory trapped inside. The family life is forever damaged. Then her photographic career takes her across the world: to sleazy Berlin of the 1930s, to the pre-war London and New York art scenes, to fascist riots in London, to D-day and beyond in Europe, to an unexpected encounter, and marriage, to a World War II soldier who turns out to belong to nobility, and finally to Vietnam and then to California in search of her daughter Blythe. What is remarkable is Boyd’s skill in creating the reality of each scene, especially in wartime Europe and distant Vietnam.

But while a photographic career makes logical many of these adventures, we never see Amory’s mind working as a photographer. We never witness what her imagination sees in an image, or when darkroom magic reveals it. We do see what are purported to be her photographs, as they are scattered through the book. But they are not truly artful. They appear to have been carefully researched—as if to substitute for showing us a photographic mind at work. Three images make this research obvious. In one, Amory is caught posing on a beach, looking directly at the camera, but says she does not know who took the picture. While another is a famous close-up of crossed legs in net stockings. Finally, another image, of a soldier at war, which presumably earned Amory a high award, is simply undistinguished.

In an interview, Boyd explains that he collects anonymous amateur photographs, and decided to use them here in this novel about a photographer. He says that he is “trying to make fiction seem so real you forget it is fiction.” He also says that he contrived a few scenes to match a photograph that he had at hand. But for me, an amateur photographer who has exhibited his work, these photographs lend an air of artificiality to this novel that is supposed to be about a highly skilled successful professional photographer.

As I said, more care is taken to portray Amory as a woman rather than as a photographer. Thus, we look frequently into the female side of her mind, as she describes people’ clothing and appearance, that is, details of more concern to a woman. We are also informed frequently about her emotional state, particularly as she takes on five, often conflicting, lovers during her life, as well as the raising of twin daughters. It should be noted, however, that one reviewer, Roxana Robinson in The New York Times, faults Boyd in capturing this female viewpoint, declaring that “all the descriptions of emotion are pretty unemotional.”

Boyd seems equally intent here to offer a portrait of the 20th century, at least its history surrounding three major wars, two in Europe and one in Vietnam. Is this why he settled on a photographer, as a way to cover such a broad expanse? If so, it was a wise calculation in the conceptual stage. It does allow him to cover a range of 20th century history. But it seems to be a stretch in detailing a full rich life for his heroine. The two final sections appear especially arbitrary, first when Amory decides she needs to go to Vietnam to prove to herself at age fifty that she can justify her life as a photographer, and second as she travels to California to rescue one daughter from a commune.

The meaning behind the sweet caress of the title is elusive at first. I read later that it is taken from a translated quote lifted from a hypothetical French novel written by one of Amory’s lovers, that is, a fictional character. But I completely missed this. I would prefer that it refers to Amory’s life experiences, which have been, in her words, “rich, intensely sad, fascinating, droll, absurd, and terrifying—sometimes—and difficult and painful and happy.” That is, she has had many fleeting experiences such as a caress implies, and that such experiences have been emotionally intimate and led to a sense of connecting with history. Life has treated her well, even as, at the end, she feels ill and vulnerable. Indeed, her journal entries at the end seem intended to give meaning to her life, to the novel, and to life itself. One suspects that this has been the reason for their existence, in addition to tying Amory’s adventures together.

There is a final scene in which Boyd attempts to have his cake and eat it, too. The ill Amory realizes she is nearing the end of her life. So she rationalizes that she herself should control that ending, and in her journal justifies taking her own life. And one infers that Boyd is speaking through her as well. It is a moment intended to add philosophical and psychological depth to the portrait of this woman. But then Boyd pulls a fast one, and reverses himself in an ending that I shall leave the reader to discover. But for me, not an adherent of assisted dying, it was a disappointing outcome. Perhaps, however, Boyd intended her introspection to mirror the early scene in which Amory’s father also attempts suicide.

Despite my criticism, Boyd is still on my list of favored novelists. I have not read all twelve of his novels, but I have enjoyed each one I have read. And I look forward to still more. (September, 2017)

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