‘There was a mistake made on the day I was born, when I come to think of it,’ begins the narrator of Sweet Caress, Amory Clay, recalling how her father put her down in the birth notices as a boy. ‘Why did he say “son”? To spite his wife, my mother? Or was it a perverse wish that I wasn’t in fact a girl, that he didn’t want to have a daughter. Was that why he tried to kill me later, I wonder…’
As it transpires a chapter later, that wasn’t it; her father, suffering the trauma of the Great War and wanting to end it all, simply thought his eldest daughter would be good company on the journey. So he drove them both into the lake but having a tenuous grip on reality, misjudged its depth. They both lived but, unsurprisingly, something died that day between them.
With Dad locked up in a ‘posh loony bin’, Amory finds a father-figure/mentor in her Uncle Greville, a charming and modern society photographer who encourages her interest in photography and to make a career out of it. She heads to Berlin in the 1920s, where she tries to make a name for herself by secretly photographing scenes from brothels and strip clubs, and in the 1930s she covers a fascist march in the East End, London, when she is beaten unconscious by the Blackshirts. She follows the Allies through France in World War 2 in the 1940s, and in the 1960s, covers the Vietnam War. All of this is interspersed with interjections from Amory approaching 70, now living on a remote coastal area in Scotland with a dog and whisky her constant companions.
Boyd has a flair for creating fiction that reads like non-fiction, as in the hoax biography of Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, and the wonderful Any Human Heart, narrated as the diary of Logan Mountstuart whose 85 years spanned the 20th century and involved encounters with historical figures such as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Fact and fiction are blurred here too. Amory’s journals from Vietnam have footnotes, she goes to a party attended by Hemmingway and Marlene Dietrich, and some of the women photographers she hangs out with turn out to be real people. More innovatively the book is illustrated with black and white photographs, photos of people in Amory’s life or photographs that Amory is supposed to have taken, but which Boyd reportedly collected over the years from junk shops. They are the kind of amateur snaps you’d find in your grandparent’s photo album, rather than what you’d expect from a professional photographer, but I found them fascinating. These imperfect compositions, with their fuzzy edges and heads decapitated by bad framing, have a spontaneity and humanity that highlights everything that is wrong with, and boring about, the self-conscious images we have become accustomed to in the age of the selfie.
This view of one woman’s life over the 20th century points to a generation of female war photographers like Martha Gellhorn, most of whom still remain unknown. But if war is the thread that stitches the narrative together, it remains almost as a scenic background, while the main action revolves around Amory’s career and her relationships. If it wasn’t written by William Boyd, it might be called chick-lit.
If only it were a bit more chick-litish. Amory is complex and unconventional, lives an adventurous life and has a photographer’s eye for detail, as evidenced by her descriptions of the cut of people’s clothes, or the shape of her lovers’ penises. She is a crisp narrator with a clear-eyed view of the way most lives are lived: ‘We make do, favour the right leg, use the left hand, slip a paperback under the armchair where the castor should be … We limp along, patching up, improvising.’
Yet she is somehow not fully-fleshed. Characters that are supposed to be significant in her life come briefly into focus before being ushered off the page, before you get a measure of them or what they meant to her. And the way the central narrative is interrupted by sections narrated by the older Amory is more distracting than insightful. The result is that I wasn’t compelled to find out what happened next, and it wasn’t particularly satisfying when I did. It’s not that Boyd can’t write or sustain a female character – he can and has. He just hasn’t quite pulled it off here.
Sweet Caress by William Boyd (Bloomsbury, $33) is available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.