“However long your stay on this small planet lasts, and whatever happens during it, the most important thing is that – from time to time – you feel life’s sweet caress.”
This fragment from Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau‘s avis de passage is how William Boyd’s latest novel comes to be framed, both in its abstraction and its historical situation. Sweet Caress is the title, the message and the context around which Amory Clay’s life is woven.
This is, of course, how Boyd deals with fiction in most of his fourteen novels. In works such as Waiting for Sunrise, Restless and Any Human Heart, the mission of Boyd’s fiction is not to simply create a story but to animate a singular, exquisitely rich life that exists in a world that is recognisable, yet vastly different from our own. This is indeed how Boyd presents Sweet Caress; not as a novel but as a journal written by Amory Clay as an older woman living in the Hebrides, reflecting back on a life flavoured by adventure as a photographer and living through some of the 20th century’s most important events. Indeed Boyd’s talent for wrapping history around his fictions is never more prevalent than in Sweet Caress. Amory is woven into monumental, historical events such as the Battle of Cable Street, WWII and the Vietnam War.
Without doubt there is an overwhelming sense of déjà vu that is encountered whilse reading Sweet Caress. Characters such as Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau take the place of Logan Mountstuart’s Ernest Hemmingway. The archetypal settings of New York, Paris and London are invoked to create the quiet romance of a pre-globalised world. Boyd’s commanding focus on art and the artist also fill the pages of Sweet Caress; perhaps the social difficulties experienced by most of Boyd’s protagonists is the consequence of their desire to be artists of some form.
However formulaic or contrived the construction of Boyd’s novels are, perceptions are changed with Sweet Caress. it is bold and enthralling, humorous and heart-breaking. The reader cannot help but live alongside Amory from the tragedies of her younger years to the pensive isolation of her later life. His latest novel is yet more proof that Boyd has a gift for creating a perfect novel.
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