What a delight to read a novel with a female protagonist of mature years which focuses on her work as well as her emotional life! For ‘Sweet Caress’ is a first person account of the life of photographer Amory Clay, born in 1908, who lived through the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, dying in 1983. As in Boyd’s previous novel, ‘Any Human Heart’, her life is explored against a background of historical events and upheavals and much of the pleasure in reading is seeing her development, and that of her family, friends and lovers, in the context of those events. But also tracing her development as a photographer from a keen amateur taker of family snapshots to a serious war photographer, with the single mindedness and courage required by that role.
Amory’s story is told chronologically from the perspective of her older self retired on a the Scottish island of Barrandale in 1977. Born into a comfortable middle class family in the south of England, her world is shattered by her father’s mental breakdown after his experiences of the First World War. She rejects the idea of Oxford to work with her uncle Greville as a society photographer and in the 20s goes to Berlin where she takes a series of shocking photos in the raunchy nightclubs of that city. In the fallout from exhibiting those photographs she escapes stuffy England to work in the US, then returns to Europe where she spends time as a war photographer during World War 2 in Northern France. There she meets her husband, a Scottish lord as it happens, and spends several years married to him experiencing the hollow snobbery of the aristocracy. Widowed young and her children grown, she picks up her camera again to go to Vietnam in the late 1960s. Eventually overwhelmed by the horrors of war she returns to Britain and family matters at the end of the 60s.
Interwoven into the stuff of her professional life are her love affairs. Boyd captures well the heady excitement of her first sexual encounters in London as well as the deeper and more complicated feelings involved in longer affairs as a mature woman- he is impressive in his ability to get under a woman’s skin in these passages. But Amory’s emotional life is much more than her romantic relationships with men.Her changing relationships with her siblings is touchingly portrayed. She has friendships with other women photographers as well as male colleagues in peace and war. She has a complex relationship with her daughters and the account of her worries for them and gnawing self doubt over the extent of her responsibility for them as young adults is convincingly told.
Over and above Amory’s personal story the novel provides us with an interesting account of the development of photography in the twentieth century, exploring many genres: portrait, snapshot, social commentary, war photography. Scattered through the narrative are many of the photos Amory describes, inviting us to think- is the photo capturing a moment in time? is it staged?- while questioning veracity and fiction in narrative too. The novel pays tribute to the role of photography in general in bringing the reality of war to the public but its angle is on the role played by women photographers in this project. Their courage, initiative, resolute independence and willingness to go out on a limb are well described in the sections on war and Boyd acknowledges several well known women photographers at the end of the novel.
As with ‘Any Human Heart’ the downside of embarking on such a broad sweep of a novel is sacrificing depth for breadth and frustrating the reader who wants to know more. There were a couple of sections when I felt this: I wanted more detail on how Amory felt about her husband’s growing drink problem as well as more on her experience of fear in the Vietnam war. But that kind of account has been told elsewhere and this would be a different novel if it did not have its broad sweep: these are minor carps and made up for many times over by the pacey and gripping narrative, the authentic female voice and the refreshingly gutsy character of Amory Clay.