Thursday 27 October 2016

Dramatic chronicle of love and loss in a time of war

Sweet Caress, William Boyd, Bloomsbury, €28.50.

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

I am a camera: William Boyd gets behind the lens of his characters
I am a camera: William Boyd gets behind the lens of his characters
Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Amory Clay's start in life does not augur well. Her parents announce, via The Times of London, the birth of a son. And with this unforgettable opening are we introduced to the intriguing and infuriating Amory. Despite, or perhaps because of, a mother who "managed to conceal whatever affection she felt for her children with great success" and a father driven so insane by war that he requires a lobotomy, Amory survives and thrives; as do, somewhat improbably, her siblings, one becoming an internationally successful concert pianist, the other a poet of sensitivity and flair.

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William Boyd is back with two of the things he does best: women, and the panorama of a life lived against the backdrop of the 20th century. Who can forget Hope Clearwater, the intrepid primatologist of Brazzaville Beach or Eva Delectorskaya, who reinvented herself as Sally Gilmartin in his riveting spy novel Restless? In The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, Boyd fashioned a pair of compelling cradle-to-grave narratives. Now with Sweet Caress he brings them both together.

Amory falls into photography almost by accident, moving up the ladder, thanks to luck, graft and timing, from insipid images of society weddings to the drama and chaos of war. She has two significant lovers, an annoying French soldier/ novelist Charbonneau, and an American married man, Cleveland Finzi, but her affairs, though interesting in their ways, are mostly incidental to the central action.

First and foremost, this is a novel about war and what it does to people. After all, Amory is born in 1908 and consequently her adolescence bears the hangover of the Great War. Her fertility is (apparently) destroyed by one of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirt thugs, her career nearly upended by her risqué portraits of the demi-monde of Weimar Berlin, and then World War II rears its ugly head. Here, love intervenes again for our charismatic narrator, whose marriage to doomed Scottish aristocrat Sholto Farr brings new challenges and tragedies. Amory's later reinvention, as a middle-aged single mother in Vietnam, seems somewhat far-fetched, but is fascinating nonetheless.

Boyd is a consummate storyteller who knows how to structure his actions to dramatic effect, and so the chronicle of Clay's hectic life is interspersed with entries from a 1977 diary she keeps - The Barrandale Journal - which offers a portrait of our artist now as an old lady leading a bibulous, somewhat reclusive life in a remote corner of Scotland.

One of the great strengths of Sweet Caress is Amory - a complex character who, though not always likeable, is frequently admirable, not least in her desire to lead an interesting life. She remains opaque, forever behind a lens, which is maybe Boyd's point, but ultimately it's her unsentimental, clear-eyed take on life that resonates for the reader. As she points out: 'We only see what we want to see and that's how mistakes are made.'

This novelist has long been fascinated by photographs, which he has made a hobby of collecting. In Sweet Caress, the tale is interspersed with a selection of pictures which he captions 'in the garden at Beckburrow' and 'my mother on the beach', as well as professional snaps of decadent nightlife in Berlin and images of war - purportedly the work of Clay. It's an unnecessary distraction and a gimmick, as the reader ends up being drawn away from the narrative to wonder who these people really were, which, one presumes, is hardly the writer's intention.

Occasionally, there is the sense that Boyd is phoning this in, as the story dashes along at a frenetic, sometimes formulaic pace. At one stage the novelist appears to send himself up, writing of a particularly glamorous party, '... and then Marlene Dietrich walked in'. Of course she did.

Boyd once said how he tried "to make fiction seem so real you forget it's fiction". He mostly succeeds. Amory's gay uncle Greville invents a game (the early sections are pure Mitford), in which people are described in four adjectives. Sweet Caress is, like most of this writer's impressive body of work, vivid, poignant, compulsive and entertaining.

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