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.


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.