My recent venture through the rollercoaster life of Amory Clay in William Boyd’s novel Sweet Caress was- I have to admit- quite emotional as I lay in bed and turned over the final page. I was surprised about how this had book turned out. What drew me to this particular book was the front cover; a photograph of a young woman with a turquoise headscarf, large eyes and a film camera covering her mouth. I grabbed it quickly from the book shelf and ran out the door, late for work and not really expecting much. It wasn’t until I was sitting at breakfast the next morning, 100 pages in that I realised how much I’d underestimated it. What an absolute page turner.
Written through the eyes of Amory Clay in the 1900s, Boyd has managed to create a character who is strangely likeable, despite some of the questionable decisions she makes throughout her life. What begins as an innocent child sent off to boarding school in Sussex turns into a story about a feisty, strong woman determined to make her mark, firstly by capturing portraits of high society, and developing into a fashion and war photographer. Her peculiar fantasy about her gay uncle, passionate affairs with potentially unlikeable (sometimes married) men, snapshots of pornographic films and the rash decision to head into the foray of the Vietnam war are just some of the numerous stories this woman has to offer.
Based on a black and white photograph found at a bus stop in Dulwich, of an unknown woman posing knee-deep in a lake in her swim suit, Boyd dictates Amory Clay’s story through using 75 of his own anonymous collected pictures. They are meticulously weaved into her story, and so what seems like an autobiography of Amory herself is- in fact- a fiction.
Glamour is the first word that comes to mind, hilarity second; cocktail parties, champagne and countless cigarettes are interwoven with Amory’s honest wittiness, networking her way to make a name for herself, (politely declining many offers of dinner from rich men) despite being a woman in the 1900s. The second half of the book feels more emotional; London fascist protests, the second world war and a hippy commune (to name a few) are described with a brilliant humanity which brings Amory’s colourful life to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Marrying Lord Sholto Farr, the photograph of which Boyd shows as a strapping young soldier, begins as an epic love story but soon begins to deteriorate, a terribly unfair turn of events and almost the beginning of the end for Amory.
When reflecting the journey this woman takes- from her East Sussex childhood to her final secluded existence- it makes me wonder what my future will hold. Be prepared for scandal, romance and wit combined with a violence that sends shiver’s down your spine, painting a picture of a humbled woman reflecting on a life well lived.