Magazine article The Spectator

'Sweet Caress', by William Boyd - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Sweet Caress', by William Boyd - Review

Article excerpt

Sweet Caress William Boyd

Bloomsbury, pp.464, £18.99, ISBN: 9781408867976

Amory Clay, photographer and photo-journalist, was born in 1908, only two years after Logan Mountstuart, writer, poseur and 'scribivelard'. Amory died in 1983; Logan in 1991. Though shaped by the same era, their accounts of their lives are tonally worlds apart. Logan is flamboyant, self-regarding, lyrical, self-pitying; Amory plainer, braver, yet less self-revealing.

Both, of course, are fictional, and both are protagonists woven by William Boyd into novels where they rub shoulders with historical characters. Amory, however, born into an era in which Vivians, Evelyns and Beverleys could be of either sex, is female.

Boyd's representation of a certain sort of female voice is pitch-perfect, chiefly because he is not trying too hard to signal Amory's femininity. (It is a good rule of thumb that a bad female impersonator will be altogether too conscious of 'her' underwear.) Boyd is interested in a female who is attempting not to be defined by her gender; and there are plenty of pioneering female photographers and journalists as models, to whom Boyd plays tribute at the end of Sweet Caress . It is typical of Boyd, however, that he slips some invented characters into the list alongside the likes of Martha Gelhorn and Diane Arbus.

Logan Mountstuart's life was told through 'his' journals; Amory Clay's is an 'autobiography', written for her descendants, and distanced further by framing her memories within vignettes of the 'present', 1977, when Amory is living in an isolated cottage on a Scottish island, with a loyal labrador and a bottle of whisky as her chief comforts. Her evocation of the past is less immediate, less theatrical, less vivid, less repellent and yet less engaging. If all this sounds negative, then it is fair to warn that those who expect a female version of Any Human Heart will be disappointed.

The thinner and grainier texture of the writing is, however, deliberate. Boyd is exploring the nature of real-life memoirs, which, like photographs, depend on our belief in their unglossed relationship with fact. If they are too literary we suspect that, like too-perfect photographs, they are manipulating the truth. This notion is reinforced by the inclusion, throughout Sweet Caress, of amateur period photographs, purporting to be the work of Amory. These do raise a query about how she could hold down a job as a professional photographer; but Boyd makes plain her private fondness for unsaleable 'bad-crop' shots: the only wedding photograph she keeps is by a rank amateur. …

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