Hello, friends! A couple of months ago I was browsing our local indie bookshop and noticed that William Boyd has a new novel out. As you might know, I’m a longtime fan of his and I immediately bought the book. When I got home, I was startled to discover that it’s called Sweet Caress. Um. It’s a good thing I’m already a superfan, otherwise I definitely wouldn’t have glanced twice, let alone plucked it from the shelf.
That’s a terrible shame because I’m enjoying it so much. Boyd is working mostly in familiar terrain (England and New York in the twentieth century, special emphasis on the Second World War) and in his usual narrative style (alternating strands of narrative from different time periods). Yet the effect is startling.
His protagonist, Amory Clay, is a female professional photographer born in 1908. She’s the female counterpart to Logan Mountstuart, the protagonist of Boyd’s Any Human Heart, but although Boyd is retreading the scenes of Logan’s life here (boarding school, creative career, London, New York, the War, its aftermath), Amory is far more vulnerable – literally so – because of her sex. Her life is messy, unconventional and gripping.
There are a few things that don’t quite ring true for me about Amory, but there are far more that do. Some of them make me sit back and wonder, How does Boyd know this? For example, here’s the sixty-nine-year-old Amory having lunch with a thirty-something diplomat:
Within about two minutes I knew I didn’t like him – not because of his manifest intelligence but because he was one of those men who cannot conceal their sexual interest – their sexual curiosity – about any and every woman they encounter… Here I was, sixty-nine years old, chatting away, as this young man’s querying lust, his snouty evaluation, first assessed and then casually rejected me. Maybe all men do this – instinctively consider the sexual potential of every woman they meet. I can’t say – but all the men I’ve known have taken care to conceal it from you, if you’re a woman, unless that encounter is taking place expressly with some sexual end in mind, of course.
The young waitress comes to their table and
I sensed Alisdair McLennan’s idle carnal interest now play over her as she stood there, taking our orders, like an invisible torch beam, probing, considering, and then being switched off. Nothing doing. As a consequence, I became a bit dry with him, a bit clipped and cynical, as if to say: I’ve got your number, my friend – and it doesn’t appeal. But I don’t think he picked up the nuances – these kind of men don’t. It’s a variant version of pure ego – they’re never aware how others are judging them.
To me, that’s an remarkable bit of insight. Astral projection, even. The phrase “snouty evaluation” especially got to me: the way it evokes uncouth nosing and nudging is perfection.
Because Amory is a photographer, the book is decorated with “found” period photographs. I’m really ambivalent about this. It’s a lovely idea but with very few exceptions, I find the photos disappointing – particularly those that are supposed to represent Amory’s professional work.
Others, though, are just delightful – like this one. And of course the father’s handstands become an important part of the story.
I’m only two-thirds of the way through Sweet Caress (really, I hate even typing the title) and am trying not to anticipate too much, although Boyd is shameless about dropping hints (wedding day, Vietnam, a missing brother) of what’s to come. It’s a classic Boyd experience for me because despite its flaws, I want it to last forever. Reading it hurts a little because each page brings me closer to the end.
That might be the best thing I could possibly say about a book.