"When I finished it I felt the bittersweet heartache that comes with knowing that one will never have the undiluted pleasure of reading a particular book for the first time again."
Some critics are saying this is the best novel Boyd has written in years. I would go further – Sweet Caress may be the best things he has ever done. When I finished it I felt the bittersweet heartache that comes with knowing that one will never have the undiluted pleasure of reading a particular book for the first time again.
Sweet Caress is the story of a life, and a life well and fully lived. Well… up to a point. Amory Clay, our heroine, born in 1908, never marries. She never has children (more about this later). But she swims like a fish through the currents of the 20th century, experiencing more in one lifetime than most ever will.
Her father is a short story writer but hasn’t written a word since his experiences in the trenches during WW1. A cheerful, upbeat, good-looking man, he takes his daughter out for a drive. But this is no innocent outing: he tries to kill them both by driving into a lake. Fortunately it is shallower than he thought and both survive, him to end up being lobotomised and parked in an asylum.
But for Amory, near-death turns out to be the gateway into a new life.
"Boyd plays the wonderful trick of scattering ‘Amory’s’ photographs throughout the book, giving the story tremendous verite."
After recovering from the trauma of her father’s attempt to kill her, Amory pushes all thoughts of Oxford aside and goes to work in London as an assistant to her photographer uncle, Greville.
Her camera is the young woman’s passport to a new world: the real world. She becomes a gifted, instinctive photo-journalist. Boyd plays the wonderful trick of scattering ‘Amory’s’ photographs throughout the book, giving the story tremendous verite. (He’s done this kind of thing before; in Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 Boyd wrote so convincingly about the imaginary artist that one of his ‘paintings’, which Boyd himself knocked off in an afternoon, sold at Sotheby’s for £7,000).
We experience some of the key events of the 20th century through Amory’s eyes and Amory’s lens. But unfolding history intrudes into her reality: she is made infertile by a kick to the stomach from one of Oswald Mosely’s fascists. Amory’s remarkably distant mother (‘she managed to conceal whatever affection she felt for her children with great success’) informs her it could be ‘a blessing in disguise’.
She has tangential encounters with the rich, powerful and famous – Robert Capa, John Steinbeck, Marlene Dietrich, and even finds herself in the same room as the Prince of Wales.
We travel with Amory to Berlin, New York, France at war, and later, Vietnam. There is a sinister encounter with the SAS. And we experience her present too; living quietly in a cottage on the Scottish coast in the late 1970s.
Like Richard, I was sad to finish this near-perfect book.
But I can’t wait to read it again.