Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Caroline Jackson is thrilled to have a new William Boyd novel to get her teeth into and finds it as good as his best.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd (Bloomsbury Publishing, £18.99 *£14.99)

Patience rewarded! If, like me, you are haunted by thoughts of the innumerable, inspiring biographies one seems fated never to read, not to mention ever-lengthening lists of essential novels, you will share my joy that William Boyd’s latest offering, his 14th novel and another fictional autobiography, is every bit as good as it should be. All literary guilt was, temporarily, assuaged as I immersed myself in this captivating account of a singular life.

Alternating the supposed memoir of a pioneering female photographer with extracts from her 1977 diary (and intriguingly illustrated with monochrome images from her purported archive), Sweet Caress is, nonetheless, a model of traditional storytelling.

Filtered through a feminine lens ‘the automatic eye’ of heroine and narrator, Amory Clay, is a simple but effective metaphor for memory it’s an obvious complement to one of Mr Boyd’s earlier novels, Any Human Heart, being as much a panorama of the 20th century as a record of one woman’s progress through it.

Ventriloquism is the novelist’s stock in trade, but to render truth over reality by means of narrative forgery art not merely imitating life, but faking it is something at which Mr Boyd is a virtuoso.

Back in 1998, cocking a snook at artistic pretension and contrivance, he published a monograph on a fictitious, mid-century American artist, Nat Tate. Demonstrating ‘how credible a pure fiction could be’, this sophisticated hoax became paradoxical proof of Mr Boyd’s creative integrity and estimable intelligence (assuming a life of its own when Tate became the subject of academic study and one of ‘his’ pictures, drawn by Mr Boyd, was sold at Sotheby’s).

In 2002 came Any Human Heart, the much beloved, imagined history of antihero Logan Mountstuart, which, like its progenitor, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, is a master-piece. A hard act to follow.

Born into a world of middle-class, Edwardian neuroses, Amory (memorable monikers are one of Mr Boyd’s specialities and typically abundant) takes up photography on receiving a camera from her uncle, Greville. She embarks on ‘the race for the rest of my life’ through decades awash with drink and wreathed in cigarette smoke; with his faultless eye and ear for period detail, no wonder Mr Boyd was anointed to write a new James Bond.

Amory’s skewed childhood perceptions yield to adolescent pretensions and insecurities which cede, in turn, to youthful determination and mature self-awareness as she wends her photographic way from 1920s Berlin, via 1930s New York, London’s Blackshirts riots and France during and after the Second War into marriage and middle age. She later covers the Vietnam War before confronting the counter-culture of 1960s California.

Detailing her professional and personal encounters with equal vitality, there are some superb set pieces the depiction of Berlin’s prewar demi-monde pays homage to, even rivals, Christopher Isherwood’s celebrated evocations of the time balanced against insights of sobering veracity. Although based on numerous real-life exemplars, including Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller and Hannelore Hahn (each of whom is credited), Amory’s inner life is exposed with exceptional imaginative sympathy.

Prey to the universal instinct to recall one’s parents, willingly or otherwise, at times of trouble, she is blessed and burdened with a stunningly convincing female sensibility guilt, pragmatism, impetuosity and forgiveness all jostle, unceasing as she navigates the autonomy-confounding surprises thrown up by life.

Few writers convey human fallibility with such deceptive simplicity, cognisant of the defining influence of both mistakes and luck. This winning story, unusual and very often accidental as it is, illuminates the story of every woman and, in so doing, delivers everything a novel can promise.

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