Picturing the Twentieth Century
William Boyd has always been ‘a safe pair of hands’ in my eyes, as a novelist. He always writes well, he writes with interesting perspective, creates well-rounded characters and has a strong sense of narrative, a story well-told.
And those novels where he examines the sweep of the twentieth century through the eyes of generally a creative mover and shaker of some kind, such as The New Confessions (a film-maker) and particularly Any Human heart (a writer) are particularly gripping, rich and rewarding reads.
So I was delighted to discover that Sweet Caress was following this successful and fascinating route, for Boyd fans – another follow the arc of the century, with the protagonist this time a photographer, and one, moreover, who married the art of photography (as opposed to snapshots) with major world event – a war photographer. What is different in this novel is that his central character, and narrator, is female. There are always challenges in trying to feel and interpret the world across gender. Inevitably, it is going to be women who will really assess whether his first person narrator (this must surely be the most difficult way of writing inside another, that ‘I’ voice, in crossing the biological divide)
And I do have to say I wasn’t completely convinced that Amory Clay was believably female in her sensibilities. Clever Boyd to give her a neutral and unusual name so that she kind of holds, for this reader at least, the imprint of another similarly named Amory – Amory Blaine from F Scott FitzGerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. It rather gave an androgyne quality so that Boyd’s Amory came trailing the clouds of post first world war youth and hedonism, like her Fitzgerald namesake.
What Boyd sensibly avoided was to write the detail and the emotion of Amory’s sexual encounters. Perhaps nowhere are we so inside our gender as in those bodily sensations.
Where I couldn’t quite connect Amory Clay as female was in a curious disconnection from explaining how she was feeling within her relationships, the emotional tenor of them, whether as lover, or, more particularly, as mother. It’s certainly not true that all women are more feeling, all men more thinking, in tone, but there was a kind of distance from her feelings, with Amory, given that Boyd had chosen the first person narrative, the character inside her own head, that did not feel quite like a female. I could, just, rationalise this by relating it to her profession – a photographer is standing outside the situation and observing it, and, given that she was a public photographer, a photojournalist, her profession will have led her to something that makes a comment about situations rather than inhabits it. And this was underlined by the structure of the book – it is peppered with photos from Amory’s album, from her first, early snaps as a child, to photos she took as a War photographer in the Second World War and in Vietnam, so there is a lot of describing what is going on in her own life, deconstructing and commenting on her own life and feelings as if she were an outside observer of it.
This sense I had of a disengagement with emotion does not in any way mean that Boyd is a writer who is disengaged with emotion. I think back to Lysander, the central character of Any Human Heart, who was intensely emotional – a particularly suffused with feeling man.
Structurally, the book alternates between the central character, an elderly, widowed woman living in the far north of Scotland, in a settled degree of rural isolation, in the present, or near present, and going back to her beginnings, moving forward in the journey of how she got from there to here. She was an interesting and fascinating person to spend a life journey with, and there are the usual trademarks in these kinds of books of Boyd’s – real people, real events, drift in to the edges of Boyd’s imaginary characters, giving the feel of biography as much as fiction, though he doesn’t (thankfully) take outrageous liberties with the real people and force them into some kind of close or meaningful encounter with his fictional people.
Having spent a lot of time trying to put my finger on what makes this novel not quite reach the pinnacle of satisfaction that Any Human Heart had, I was still captivated and held by it, warm towards it, though it definitely had sections which did not quite work. I understand that the photos in the book were various pictures he had found (presumably in some sort of photo job lot from various second hand photo outlets) and enjoyable though the pictorial interludes were, occasionally I did wonder whether the pictures chosen had driven the story being written, rather than a story, which the author then tries to find pictures to underline with. There is a section late in the book, an American strand, which felt particularly contrived rather than organic
I received this as an advance copy for review, in digital format, from the publishers via NetGalley