Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay

William Boyd

Review by Amanda Ellison

In between cultivating an extra layer of belly fat,  tackling my hair with the dog’s shears and teaching myself to whistle along to The Killing of Georgie Parts I and II, I have spent this lockdown indulging in something of a ‘Boyd Binge’ (bingeing is an activity I normally reserve for Netflix and boxes of Lindt). I’m referring here to William Boyd – master of the sprawling saga.

My first rendezvous with Boyd’s prose was several years ago, when Ordinary Thunderstorms was voted our Book Club monthly read. Without any expectation, I was vaguely impressed. I believe I rated it quite highly when we delivered our personal verdicts. An inchoate admiration was born, but that was that. I didn’t pick up another Boyd novel for some time (May 2018, in fact) when I unwittingly forged an intense and enduring connection with Any Human Heart, having flirted with the idea of ‘giving it a go’ for several months. For anyone who hasn’t read it, I can only recommend that you do.  On the whole, commentators – and I am one of this claque – lionise this book. In the gamut of Boyd’s oeuvre this is probably his gold standard. In the mournful aftermath of its conclusion, I vowed to read more of Boyd’s work. But I didn’t. Then, the enforced hermeticism of lockdown changed that: at last, a perverse opportunity to make a dint in that TBR pile. Determinedly, I navigated my way through my Jenga tower of books - five William Boyd books forming the pinnacle. Thoroughly invested in the fourth of these, I was struck by a realisation: this particular silent friend –  Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay -  could take on Any Human Heart in a duel, vying for supremacy in an equitable contest. Sweet Caress is Boyd’s sixteenth novel and his fourth written from a female perspective. The narrative voice is part of the appeal, I think; I struggle to summon to mind another male author who can convincingly adopt a woman’s voice and psyche.

As a title, Sweet Caress is both misleading and revealing: at first glance, it seems to announce itself as ‘chick lit.’ ( not a genre I particularly enjoy, usually  – I read this simply because of its author); it is apt, however, in that it embraces the theme of the whole novel, as highlighted in the words of Amory Clay, the protagonist:

However long your stay on this small planet lasts, and whatever happens during it, the most important thing is that – from time to time – you feel life’s sweet caress.

So: Sweet Caress has been described as a ‘fictional autobiography’, pursuing the life of the aforementioned Amory Clay, charting the expansive drama of her exploits and trials from her birth in 1908 to old age, which finds her living in seclusion on the remote Scottish island of Barransay. The prose is punctuated with complementary ‘found’ photographs; the friable and grainy images impart a sense of authenticity to the autobiographical theme. Amory is born into a middle-class family in East Sussex, the eldest of three children. Her father mistakenly announces her as his new son and gives her an androgynous name, perhaps a warning sign for later events: while at boarding school, her father (traumatised, damaged and emotionally scarred after the Great War) picks her up for a day out but proceeds to attempt suicide by driving into a pond, taking Amory along for the ride. Both survive. For Amory, this is a pivotal moment: ‘The bonds had been broken and all that was left was the official designation - a father, a daughter’. This undoubtedly affects her future relationship choices, which are skilfully knitted into the tapestry of the narrative throughout the book. It may also, to some degree, account for her determination to succeed in a male-dominated profession and subconsciously atone for not having been born a boy. At the age of seven, her Uncle Greville, a society photographer, gives her a Kodak Brownie camera for her birthday, igniting her lifelong passion for photography. Driven to pursue a career in this field, Amory is apprenticed to her uncle - and so her colourful career in photography begins. It is a career which brings both scandal and acclaim.  Amory’s occupation could well be a metaphor for her desire to present the world as she sees it, to edit and control her world, as a counter-balance to the powerlessness of fated experience. Her career takes her through the decadent bacchanalia of 1920s Weimar Berlin, the source material of her subsequent exhibition in London. This exhibition is significant: it teaches Amory the power of public opinion and the impact of betrayal, after her uncle distances himself from her professionally. This is followed by a period of photographing socialites for a fashion publication – not Amory’s forte, but the cost of infamy – in New York in the 1930s, where she becomes embroiled in two significant relationships that help shape the fabric of her life. A spell in London sees Amory ensnared in the Blackshirt Riots, during which a brutal attack renders her infertile. The vast geographical canvas of this book also sees Amory in France during World War II and, much later, in the heart of the complex warfare in Vietnam. Amory becomes known as an accomplished war photographer (part of an illustrious ‘sorority’ as she phrases it), cementing her triumph in a largely male sphere. In less competent hands, Amory could become something of a soppy, stylised character; under Boyd’s aegis, she emerges as a rich psychological illustration of a woman who is ‘pretty, stubborn, clever, complicated’.

For me, the story is made particularly compelling because of its structure. Boyd alternates between the diary extracts of present-day Amory on her island, and flashbacks chronicling her historical exploits and the vicissitudes of her inner life. Thus we learn of Amory’s life in an episodic way, and the accretion of revelation helps us better understand the current Amory. The over-all effect is aided by the vivid ‘zeitgeisty’ (and – clearly - thoroughly researched) historical detail as well as the visual complements. Prepare for surprises as Amory’s story unfolds; as with every Boyd novel I have read, I find the second half of the novel more absorbing, more demanding of investment, as we share the heroine’s shifting fortunes. The biggest surprise is an unexpected ‘twist’ at the end (at least, I didn’t predict it!). What is more, the coda really adds to the impact and raises interesting questions for the reader.

Notwithstanding the question of credibility regarding some of Boyd’s more ‘gynaecological’ descriptions (and a few reviewers have commented on this aspect of his female dramatic personae), this book abounds with positives.  Sweet Caress would definitely appeal to any reader who likes their characters three-dimensional and a little bit hinterland, their historical detail rich and convincing, the storytelling to be sweeping and compelling, and their page-turners to be on the literary side. Based on this novel alone, it is easy to see why the Ian Fleming estate commissioned Boyd to write the James Bond thriller, Solo: he’s good, seriously good.


Try These:

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Restless by William Boyd

Trouble on Cable Street by Joan Lingard

Face of War by Martha Gellhorn

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

‘War Photographer’ (poem) by Carol Ann Duffy