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Sweet Caress by William Boyd - Book Review

01/09/2015 00:47 BST | Updated 29/08/2016 10:59 BST

Bloomsbury have published the much awaited new novel by William Boyd. I've had a copy of Sweet Caress for weeks but was waiting until closer to the publication date to write this review. Trouble is, I was told the 10th September. And they released it on August 27th. And now, of course, you've all read it, haven't you?!

Well just for larks, let's pretend you haven't. Would you do that for me?

As a professional journalist I have to declare my interests. My study of imagination is filled with a circle of people seated on chairs. They gesture at me saying with their eyes "go on, it's your go." I shakily stand up and say. "Hello, I'm Jez. And I'm a massive, unashamed William Boyd fan." They of course applaud, and I sit down feeling a bit better. Now this doesn't mean I can't criticise, or offer an insight. I could happily write a match review where Manchester United (another passion of mine) are concerned and say I thought Louis Van Gaal's tactics were naïve or Ashley Young isn't the right calibre of player - but I'd never be truly, safely, impartial. I can only apologise and promise that I will be as honest and exploratory as a man who ran through his flat like Rooney after a hat-trick when I received my advanced reading copy of the new book.

Our Boydy loves an anonymous photograph. He's something of a collector. If you offer him a postal sack of 500 random pictures of no one in particular, he'll bite your hand off.

A few choice examples of his collection make up the many lives of Amory Clay - Boyd's latest protagonist. He infuses the pics into the novel to heighten the sense of reality, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, which has become a firm trademark of his work. He used anonymous photos to illustrate the life of his hoax artist, Nat Tate, back in 1998. Boyd, with a little help from such illustrious cohorts as David Bowie and Gore Vidal, blurred the reality borders so splendidly, that a significant part of the New York art world were convinced that the unfortunate yet precociously talented Mr Tate did indeed live amongst them in the 1950s. They were even keen to purchase pieces of his work - which Boyd created himself, clever bugger. Indeed, featured in one illustrative photograph from the 'biography' is the protagonist from his 2002 novel Any Human Heart - Logan Mountstuart. I remember being distinctly disappointed at how unhandsome he was - and privately wished Boyd had picked someone much sexier. "That can't be Mountstuart," I said to myself. "Must be a mistake."

But this enhancement is precisely that. Boyd is not trying to be original. Other novelists have done it. Julian Barnes, WG Sebald, Jonathan Coe. Hell, even Facebook uses images to increase engagement. Do images then, in this context, fill the gap that words cannot? Probably not. And almost certainly not where arguably the most readable writer in English is concerned. (There I go back to my meeting again.) In Boyd's work, psychological mechanisms are - if he wants them to be - honest and clear, in his work description is diligently conjured and utterly realistic - whether it be a state of mind, an impulse, or the quality of the light on a particular day. So the photos are not going to blow anyone's mind, but I find them interesting to look at and perhaps for the wrong reasons. We know that they're just random pictures that are being falsely attributed. The choice of suspending one's disbelief is obviously there but you could just as easily think, at the onset of each new image - "I wonder who that is." It made me wonder what Mr Merrick Choad of Mayfield, East Sussex (for example) would make of being cast as a failed novelist who often does handstands while contemplating filicide.

So this is Boyd's fourth birth-to-death 'LIFE' (if you count Nat Tate) and his first female subject in this subgenre. This is not the first time a Boyd narrative has had a female voice, however. Brazzaville Beach's Hope Clearwater inspired a "bloke in drag" critique in a 1998 review from The Independent, and the phrase was borrowed again, this week, in the same paper. One of the accusations by critic and novelist Amanda Craig is that women don't recall details of the male member in the way that Boyd suggests Amory does. Being male, it's hard to arbitrate. But I remember examples of Boyd's male protagonists noticing a cock-twitch here and there and thinking, "yep". But maybe not all guys would relate to that, and maybe some ladies have a vivid memory of their lovers' holiday money, to coin a phrase. There is, embedded within the character of Amory, a gender dialectic. The announcement of her birth in print labels her erroneously as a boy, and later, after a severe beating, she is told her womb will never function again. Is this a thematic joke, one wonders? A concession? Boyd inwardly knowing that he can't truly be female (just as I can't truly be objective) and thus making her in a sense, less female? Regardless, I shall be asking ladies about penises over the next few days to try out the theory. Any excuse, eh?

Amory Clay is a photographer who, after cutting her teeth on portraits of high society, becomes an adventurous professional photographer, somewhat in the guise of AP's much-missed Anja Niedringhaus. Amory's career is largely self-determined but not without being beholden to the dashing Cleveland Finzi, and she gets into all manner of scrapes in various conflicts and with various men. But I don't want to tell the story. You've got Boyd for that.

War reportage fascinates this writer, and has done since childhood, and it was the starkness of the images of war Boyd was exposed to as a child in Africa, the continent of his birth, that informs his continuing obsession. Logan Mountstuart wrote about it, John James Todd (The New Confessions) filmed it and Amory Clay took the pics. A triumvirate of Boydean (I gave him this proper adjective in my last review and see no reason to drop it - see Waiting For Sunrise) 'lifers' now covering the field of human conflict from all angles.

As with Waiting For Sunrise there is in Sweet Caress a delightful gay uncle. I would be surprised if this turns into another regular feature but you never know.

After a sustained period of unlikely domesticity, resulting in a young family, Amory itches to do something interesting. In this she rarely fails but the pay off is a disconnection with one of her daughters which leads to a trip to the US, a motel, a private investigator and a bizarre encounter with a cult. And this is one of the greatest facets of William Boyd's novels - his imagination is such that you absolutely do not know what might be on the horizon.

After the fashion of Amory Clay, I shall describe the new offering with four adjectives.

Innovative, funny, fragmented, crepuscular.

I use the last one because, though we have plenty of opportunities to observe Amory's behaviour and thought processes, I feel we never truly get a good look at her. We can never detect the same face looking back at us from the various pictures and so, much like her lovers and her family, we can never really possess her. At one point Amory lampoons her friend's use of 'dark matter' to fill the gaps in the explanation of how the Big Bang created the universe.

The "dark" concept explains why you can't explain things. It's wonderfully liberating. Why won't my car start this morning? It started yesterday. "Dark" auto engineering.

There are gaps, too, in the flow of the novel. Where I felt a cohesion and smoothness in Any Human Heart, I feel in Sweet Caress that we had merely scenes from a life. But innovative, often funny scenes nevertheless.

The long flashback device is used effectively in the older Amory's "Barrandale Journals" which offer perspective and distance from the, as it were, real time storytelling. A life of action, drama and romance now viewed with passionate objectivity from a time and a distance apart. The remote Scottish haven Amory Clay inhabits in later life is a resting place, a viewing platform, a time to reflect, regret, re-evaluate and retire. Amory's faithful companion, her loving Labrador Flam, whines and pants uneasily as he reads his mistress' mindset, but the end is not to come just yet - and I felt that delay masterful.

The ending is beautiful, moving, universal, Chekhovian.

The insignificance of the single, individual life on Earth. The power and eternal power of nature.

Our heroine, and nobody's heroine, stands like Gurov in Anton Chekhov's Lady with Lapdog watching the sea and understanding that it speaks of the sleep awaiting us all.

Sweet Caress has already been published by Bloomsbury, dammit.