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16 September 2015updated 24 Sep 2015 10:58am

Sweet Caress tries to be inventive – but it can’t quite muster the energy

The novel's use of found photos is an interesting conceit but, like the legerdemain around the book’s title, emphasising the insubstantiality of the fictions around it.

By Sarah Churchwell

William Boyd’s 14th novel, Sweet Caress, attributes its title to an imaginary French novelist who also wrote a roman-à-clef about the book’s protagonist. This layering of metafictional cosmetics serves primarily (and ironically) to highlight the banality of Sweet Caress as a title. Unfortunately, a similar process occurs throughout this novel, which tries to be considerably more inventive than it quite musters the energy to be.

Sweet Caress tells the story of Amory Clay, whose life is a cavalcade of 20th-century landmark events. Born in 1908 to middle-class English parents, she is introduced to photography by her uncle Greville, a successful society photographer. Her father returns home traumatised from the First World War; Amory leaves school and joins Greville in London, taking pictures of the “Bright Young Things”, before heading to Weimar Berlin, in a nod to Christopher Isherwood and I Am a Camera.

Amory returns to London, embarks on her first affair, then heads to New York in the early years of the Depression, where she begins work as a photojournalist and has a few more affairs, including one with the French novelist who gives the novel its title. Back in London, she has a run-in with Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and joins the Allied forces in Europe to chronicle the Second World War. She meets a soldier. He turns out to be a Scottish lord and they marry. He is traumatised by the war and it destroys him as surely, although in different ways, as the first one destroyed her father.

In her fifties, Amory decides to go to Vietnam to experience war as the men in her life did (it’s not clear why the European front in the Second World War was insufficient to this task, although she responded to combat deaths there with remarkable sangfroid, snapping photographs as men died in front of her). She returns home to find a daughter caught up in the counterculture of the late 1960s. All of this is interspersed with a diary that Amory writes in 1977, as she lives semi-reclusively in a cottage in western Scotland, musing on her past adventures.

What makes Sweet Caress less conventional than a familiar, if reasonably entertaining, novelistic march through history – a female version of Boyd’s Any Human Heart – are the 75 photographs that the author has included, ostensibly taken by Amory but in reality anonymous snapshots collected from random sources over many years. These metafictional games hark back to Boyd’s earlier work, notably Nat Tate: an American Artist 1928-60, and in the early part of this narrative, when they purport to picture the people Amory encounters, or to show the embryonic skill of a budding artist, the images work rather well.

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Amory Clay comes from noble stock. Boyd offers the nice touch of listing in his acknowledgments only the historical pathfinders on whom Amory is modelled, female photographers and journalists such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Lee Miller, Hannelore Hahn, Martha Gellhorn, M F K Fisher and Margaret Bourke-White, among many others, a few of whom make cameo appearances in the novel.

The problem is that Amory’s primary relationships feel like cameos, too. Characters make serial appearances, only to disappear as history’s sweep moves our hero on. This is faithful to the way most lives progress, episodically and anticlimactically, with relationships passing through and dissipating. Yet one of the compensations that art can offer is to give shape and focus to our stories and relationships, resisting the entropic dissolution of experience. Apparent storylines simply unravel into loose ends: Amory’s sister becomes a concert pianist, changes her name, and many early hints are dropped about plot developments to come, which never come. Amory’s mother darkly suggests that there is something wrong with Amory’s brother, before everyone forgets all about it. Amory tries to seduce her uncle, unaware that he is gay, from which she takes the lesson that she should have realised he was gay, not that she shouldn’t have tried to sleep with her uncle.

About halfway through, the novel begins to disintegrate structurally, giving the impression that the writer is losing interest in his story. Amory’s marriage is sketched in, most of it introduced by a refrain in which every paragraph for pages on end begins: “I remember”. Even if one charitably supposes that these vignettes are supposed to suggest an album of snapshots, it doesn’t help the narrative. An even less convincing catalogue is Amory’s habit of comparing, decades later, each of her lovers’ penises in great anatomical detail. “His penis was smaller than Lockwood’s; though thicker and more heavy-headed; the glans seemed distinctly bigger (no foreskin, of course) – clearly shaped”; “Charbonneau’s penis was quite small and stubby, though he had a surprisingly and disproportionately large and heavy scrotum.” This blazon manqué will make most women hoot with laughter.

When Amory gets to Vietnam the writing deteriorates further. This section purports to be Amory’s diary, which is presumably Boyd’s justification for the sudden shifts in tense and unfinished sentences. But this diary has footnotes, although it doesn’t have an editor: because naturally a journalist jotting hasty aides-memoires in a war zone stops to add careful footnotes, offering such helpful information as what “MIA” means, or that her Vietnamese driver spoke “fluent Vietnamese”.

It is in this section, too, that the conceit of the photographs stops working, as we are asked to believe that these badly composed images won awards and established Amory’s reputation. Boyd has said that he uses the photographs “to make fiction seem so real you forget it is fiction” but, like the legerdemain around the book’s title, the device backfires, emphasising the insubstantiality of the fictions around it.

This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War