Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay by William Boyd (2015)

Books that guide you through a whole life can be magical.

I know that William Boyd has written that kind of book before and I’ve read his books before I’ve not read any that have been journeys right through lives. I’ve meant to, because I’ve read good things about them, but because I’ve liked some of his books more than others they’ve never quite come to the top of my reading queue.

Until now.

I found much to appreciate in the stories that Amory Clay had to tell, reaching back from the late seventies to childhood when the twentieth century was still quite young, but I also found that some things were missing.

When Amory was seven, her uncle Greville, a society photographer, gave her camera, a Kodak Brownie. He showed her how to use it, and she was captivated. Her father had been her hero, but he was damaged by his experiences in the Great War and he let her down. That would shape her outlook on life, and her relationships with men.

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Amory wanted to establish herself as a photographer and her uncle took her under his wing. She began by photographing socialites for the magazine Beau Monde. But a misjudgement has consequences and she escapes to Berlin, where she will take pictures of the demi monde of the late 20s. Back in London those pictures cause a sensation, but soon she needs another escape, and that leads her to 1930s.

Over the years she will photograph the Blackshirt riots in London, France during the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and an alternative community founded by those who opposed that war in 70s California.

Amory had a happy knack of being present at defining moments of modern history, but it is to William Boyd’s great credit that his story doesn’t feel contrived; Amory’s life was shaped by her own initiative, and by a few mistakes along the way.

It helped that the author clearly had a depth of knowledge of all of the history that Amory’s life touched. The story is episodic, as Amory looks back at significant parts of her life, and in every episode the world was so well evoked, the details were so well done, that I never doubted that Amory lived and breathed there, and that the author might, if he chose, extend every episode into a much longer piece.

The history is wonderful, but the book is at its strongest when Amory is involved with her family. Maybe because this is her story, because those relationships shape her, and it’s only then is her story feels entirely hers.

She’s a fascinating character, Amory Clay. Life taught her to be self-reliant, and she was. She made mistakes but she gained wisdom and I loved watching her operate; she was bright, she was complex, and she had all of the social skills she needed to move forward as a woman in what was very much a man’s world.

I appreciated that, in a world that sees full of fictional retellings of real lives lived, Amory is a proper fictional character. Clearly her life story is informed by lives of real 20th century women photographers, but I couldn’t tie it any more closely than that.

I was disappointed though that, as she told her story, she often seemed quite guarded; I appreciated that she was restrained, and in any places her understatement was wonderfully telling, but I often found myself wanting to feel a little more emotionally engaged.

I had to think that this was a life story told because she wanted to leave a clear record of the facts; rather than a story told because she wanted others to understand who she had been, and why she had done the things she had done.

I could understand that. I could accept it. I just would have liked to understand a little more of what made her want to become a photographer, and what made her define herself as a photographer throughout the course of her life.

I loved what I found in this book, I’ve very glad that I read it, and my only wish is that it had told me a little more that it did.

As it stands I’d say it’s a very good book, but not quite as magical as it might have been.

14 thoughts on “Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay by William Boyd (2015)

  1. How interesting. It’s hard to slot a character around historical events without it seeming clunky, so maybe the author invested everything in that. Or maybe it’s a comment on photographs being a created and edited image, chosen to present something in a particular way, and the character does that, too. I’ve not read any of Boyd’s books but this one does sound intriguing.

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    1. I think it only would have worked with a photographer, or maybe a journalist, and clearly there was a lot of thought behind the book so that the life and the history could be wrapped together well. It is intriguing, and now that I’ve put it down it’s still growing on me.

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  2. Great review Jane. I’ve not read any Boyd although he seems to be highly regarded everywhere. I was interested in what you said about Amory being a fully fictional character, bearing in mind how many books now feature fictionalised versions of real people. It’s a measure of Boyd’s strength as a writer that you feel that and it makes me keen to search out his work.

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    1. There are doubtless some similarities to lives I don’t know as well as I might, but the more I think the more I am convinced that Amory is fully realised as herself, no more and no less. I do think you might like this, and I’ll mention that ‘The Blue Afternoon’ is a particular favourite of mine.

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  3. I love Boyd, and agree with whatmeread says re Any Human Heart. A new Boyd then, have immediately put my request in – thank you for the alert Jane. Irresistible ! I really hope NetGalley approves me. Boyd never stays on the TBR pile for too long, but has the uncanny knack of not waiting his turn and leaping to the top of the pile

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  4. Boyd seems to like to write books that encapsulate the whole of a life. As others have said, the most obvious example is ‘Any Human Heart’. I only really came to his work with ‘Restless’ but I have loved what he has written since and am lucky to have all the earlier books to go back and read at some point. For the moment, thank you for reminding me that I must put this on my library list.

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    1. ‘Restless’ was the book that lost me, but it may have been that I picked it up at the wrong time, because I had no problem with the writing, just investing what was needed to get into the story. I may try again one day, but I have to turn to ‘Any Human Heart’ first as it has so many recommendations. I enjoyed the earlier books I read, and I hope that you will too.

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  5. Excellent review….I have never read Boyd but he seems to be someone I should read and read soon! Thanks again for introducing me to something I would have never known if not for your review!

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  6. I always see his books about but I’ve never read anything by him. That cover would put me off for a start. But looking at his backlist some look like they’ll be worth a read.

    I’ve just watched him chatting to Nick Higham on the BBC’s ‘Meet the Author’ about this book.

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