Returning to the “full life” format of his critical and popular hit Any Human Heart, William Boyd’s latest tells the story of Amory Clay, complete with found photographs she apparently took throughout her eventful career. Beginning in 1908, it spans her life chronologically, though occasionally interspersed with vignettes from her louche twilight years in the late 1970s.
The daughter of a short story writer haunted and almost psychologically destroyed by his war experiences, she struggles with feelings of inertia and listlessness as a teenager before discovering photography when her dandyish uncle Greville gives her a camera. She finds her niche as something between an artist and documentarian, becoming enraptured by the burgeoning medium’s ability to “stop time’s relentless motion and hold that scene, that split second”.
Told in a matter-of-fact voice and sometimes falling into languorous rhythms at odds with her intrepid demeanour and complex personality, the narrative follows her to the sex clubs of Berlin, where she covertly takes documentary photographs that ultimately score her the scandal and notoriety she craves.
The fallout of that scandal sees her whisked off to America, where she gets in over her head in a messy affair. Later, she ventures to the war zones in France and Vietnam, where her skill and fearlessness as a reporter get her into more precarious tangles.
The globetrotting narrative is alternately a strength and a weakness, enabling Boyd to expand on the largely untold story of the role women photojournalists played in the growth of the medium, but also giving the book an unavoidably episodic feel.
An unusual mixture of traditionalist and formal innovator, Boyd has developed a winning knack of pulling the carpet out from under the reader and Sweet Caress continues his penchant for blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, straight historical novel and experimentation.
As with his Any Human Heart, where real literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh convincingly mingled with Boyd’s creations, there are many characters here who you’ll have to look up to determine whether they’re a fascinating photojournalist whose story Boyd has unearthed or a convincing fictional person.
The lasting impression, however, is of Amory’s almost bullish desire for an eventful life, always a boon for a protagonist. If the most important thing you can do is “feel life’s sweet caress”, as the novel’s (fake) epigraph would have it, Amory felt it more than most.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/sweet-caress-review-adventure-behind-the-lens-20151201-glcews.html#ixzz40wz3fPPZ
Follow us: @smh on Twitter | sydneymorningherald on Facebook