If the on-screen cradle-to-grave biography has become progressively dull and less than illuminating, in text, it remains a potent tool to document the century’s defining events. At least in the hands of William Boyd, whose magisterial Any Human Heart (2002) saw the unforgettable Logan Mountstuart witness, among other catastrophes, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Biafran War and the unsavoury activities of the Baader-Meinhof gang. His latest, Sweet Caress, is the fitfully compelling odyssey of Amory Clay, a (fictional) woman photographer born in 1908 whose life spans much of the 20th century. Her lens is our window to a world transforming itself, faster and more dramatically, with each decade that passes. Boyd plays with form, here, splicing his heroine’s diary entries — which constitute the novel — with the photographs she purportedly took, extracts from her 1977 diary interspersed with flashbacks from her younger days.
Amory is a fitting chronicler of the tumultuous 20th century — forthright, trailblazing and, it almost goes without saying, complicated. Her father, who we are told in the first few pages almost off-handedly, had tried to kill her, is a mostly failed writer suffering from PTSD after surviving the Great War. Her mother is quintessentially English, in that she’s distant and not given to emotional displays. It is Amory’s uncle who hands her her lifelong obsession alongside her first camera, filling the void left by her father. Amory uses her camera to express herself, as a means of support, as a passport — to 1930s demimonde in Berlin, to France in 1944 and Vietnam during the war — and wields it as a shield. Along the way, she acquires and discards lovers, a husband and children, despite being told that she is infertile — news, she says, she’ll have to “think about”, “take it on board”.
The trouble is that the novel is never fully persuasive as the diary of a woman photographer at a time when that would have been a provocative and difficult thing. Perhaps, that is the byproduct of writing in an unfamiliar voice, not just that of a woman but of one who lived decades before Boyd. But Amory is less engaging and credible, and that might be why the book often feels relentless in its determination to engineer encounters with real people. The self-awareness doesn’t quite make up for the glib superficiality of some of these episodes, and there are far too many of them.
I also often found myself looking at the evocative images Boyd has collected, supposedly, from junk shops and sales, and wondering about who had really taken them and of whom they were. As brisk as the novel is, and as many incidental pleasures it contains, from Boyd’s impeccable sense of place to his efficient plotting, the fictional is in constant danger of being upstaged by the real.
Author: William Boyd