By William Boyd
Bloomsbury/Paperback/452pages/$32 from major bookstores/3.5/5
Sweet Caress, a fictional memoir that chronicles the life of its British protagonist born at the turn of the 20th century, discovers both the beauty and futility of a life well-lived.
It is the 16th work by Ghana-born British novelist William Boyd, who also wrote the 2013 Bond novel Solo. He is reputed for his cradleto-grave stories, notably Any Human Heart, his outsized 2002 work which traced the extraordinary life of a fictional writer told through his journal entries.
His latest tale treads this well-worn path as well - the androgynous-sounding Amory Clay is born in middle-class Britain in the 1900s and mistakenly announced as a boy.
Amory is sent to boarding school, but her life is upended when her father, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder and thoughts of suicide, drives them into a lake.
Later, she launches a career as a nomadic photographer, shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic, first for society rags, then venturing into war zones (both World War I and the Vietnam War serve as backdrops).
Along the way, she is courted by a Svengali-like American editor, who masterminds the rise of her career, and a Frenchman who pens a novel about her, from which the book's title is drawn.
The narrative is illustrated with photographs purportedly taken by Amory throughout her career (Boyd collected these from garage sales and antique shops), many rendered in that grainy chiaroscuro well-loved by hipsters.
Their inclusion dovetails nicely with the book's theme of man's futile struggle against the relentless pull of time.
"I was aware that only photography could pull off that magic trick of stopping time; that millisecond of our existence captured, allowing us to live forever," says Amory.
As the story flits between her recollections and her account of her final days on a secluded isle, Amory clings to these vestiges, thoughts turning in her head ("Are all the deaths you encounter and experience in fact an enhancement of the life you lead?") as her life slips rapidly away.
In adopting her voice, Boyd adheres to a journalistic writing style which, at times, comes across as impersonal, especially when he delves into her trysts.
But his nuanced, informed take on war (Boyd is a survivor himself) makes the book a worthy read. His scene-setting, from the nascent Nazi movement awakening across Europe to the heavily bombarded fields of Vietnam, is unsettling and powerfully evoked.
Amory gains recognition not from her images of war, but for depicting the quotidian in Vietnam even as war goes on. Racked with guilt, a British soldier wastes himself to death years after blowing up a house of Nazi youths. War makes prisoners of us all, Boyd seems to say.
To borrow Amory's penchant for distilling a person's character in four adjectives, Sweet Caress is dense, complex and bruising yet bittersweet, all at once.
If you like this, read: Any Human Heart by William Boyd (Penguin Books, 2002, $22.42 from Books Kinokuniya), the skilfully narrated journal of a fictional writer who, save for a few tantalising brushes with history, leads a tepid existence. Cameos by Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and the Duke of Windsor included.