Shortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
This is the title on the shortlist I was anticipating the most. Billed as the companion piece to Any Human Heart and blurbed as the best thing Boyd has ever written, it had a lot to live up to, particularly as Any Human Heart is IMO a masterpiece.
Amory Clay is the female counterpart to Logan Mountstewart. She’s born in 1908 and dies in 1983, so sees most of the C20th. Her profession as photographer is useful. It allows Boyd to move her around the globe to many of the C20th hotspots. She starts off as a society photographer with her uncle, who advises her to create a scandal to make her name known. Cue move to the louche Berlin of the 1930s. The resulting pictures are too effective. Following an obscenity trial, her reputation is in shatters. To restart her career, she needs to move to the States, sponsored by the man destined to become her employer, lover and long-term protector. There follow sojourns in France during WWII as a rather uncourageous war photographer, in Scotland as part of the landed gentry during the 1950s, another stint as a war photographer during Vietnam, after which her final years are spent living alone with her dog back on the West Coast of Scotland.
There’s a lot happening on this world stage, and Amory Clay’s personal life is just as eventful! As if dalliances with her married employer and a French writer, marriage with a Scottish Lord were not enough, Amory’s life still has time for final adventure chasing after her AWOL daughter to an American commune. At 447 pages, this is one of the longest novels of the Walter Scott Shortlist, and it is also the quickest read.
Boyd loves to mix his books with other art forms and so here the chosen medium is photography. Scattered among the text are photographs, purporting to be those taken by Amory Clay. Now I haven’t heard Boyd speak, nor have I read any interviews about this novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him finding a cache of unaccredited (and not always brilliant) photographs around which he has seamlessly woven his tale. (Aaah, look what I just found.)
A key question for the success of this novel is whether Amory Clay feels authentic. She does in most things: discovery of the carnal coinciding with the slackening of moral restraint in the C20th, lack of courage at the front line and her honesty about it, falling for men who are not emotionally the best choice, the sometimes distant relationship with her daughters. Her forgiveness of her father stretched my credulity somewhat (No hints here, it’s a major plot feature.) I particularly enjoyed her analysis of light.
I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon ….
Much to enjoy, therefore, but nothing that had me as a reader firing on all cylinders. Why ever not? Let me be clear. Sweet Caress is a good novel and a vast improvement on the last Boyd I read. (In fact, Waiting for Sunrise had me thinking that I wouldn’t bother reading any more.) But I had been led to expect something on a par with Any Human Heart and so I was waiting for the sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm of the dog food moment. It was perhaps unfair of me to do so.