Although I have by no means read everything by William Boyd, Sweet Caress reminds me most of his Any Human Heart, perhaps because it’s the story of one person’s life. This novel is about Amory Clay, a photographer born in 1908. Boyd creates the impression that Amory is a real person (so much so that I googled her twice) by interjecting photos of her life into the novel.
Amory leads an unusual life almost from the start of the novel. Although her father suffers from depression and other problems as a result of World War I, she is so content with her home life that she is upset when her parents send her away to school. Her parents are not well off, but Amory learns later that a legacy from an aunt is dedicated to her education.
Her mother wants her to attend university, but she decides early that she doesn’t want to go. Her favorite uncle, Greville, gave her a camera on her 10th birthday, and she wants to be a professional photographer.
Then a violent incident brings her home. Her father arrives at school unexpectedly to take her to tea. But his intention is to commit suicide, and he doesn’t want to go alone. Amory survives the drive into the lake and even saves her father, who is committed to an institution for a long time.
Soon after, Amory becomes Uncle Greville’s assistant. He is a society photographer, and although Amory does not enjoy this type of work, she must start somewhere. But she takes a risk with an unusual betrothal photo, and its reception ruins her chances. Soon Amory is off to capture the decadent night life of Berlin.
Amory leads an extraordinary life that contains many sorrows and triumphs. She is a war correspondent for both World War II and the Vietnam War, she is attacked by fascists rioting in London, she travels with lesbians to Mexico, she encounters a Charles Manson-like figure in 1960’s California. She almost unwittingly marries a lord and has a family. These are just some of the events of her life, its story punctuated with paragraphs from the “present time” of 1978, when Amory is an old woman.
I found this novel involving, although not as much as I did Any Human Heart. For one thing, I wasn’t always convinced I was hearing a woman’s voice, and in no way was this because of Amory’s adventurous life. Also, Amory’s voice is a reserved one, with certain exceptions. Still, it is a fascinating story that manages to cover a great deal of modern history.