Book reviews: Sweet Caress - William Boyd

Boyd illustrates his work with period pictures supposedly taken by his heroine, Amory Boyd. Picture: Getty
Boyd illustrates his work with period pictures supposedly taken by his heroine, Amory Boyd. Picture: Getty
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DON’T get me wrong – I enjoyed this book very much indeed. It has an unobtrusively elegant prose style coupled to propulsive plot momentum; deft characterisation and intelligent commentary.

Sweet Caress

William Boyd

Bloomsbury, £18.99

I suppose my misgiving is a vague sense that if I had set out to write a hoax William Boyd novel, it would have been very similar to Sweet Caress.

Like James Todd in The New Confessions or Mountstuart in Any Human Heart, the protagonist is an artist (although in this case female, and a photographer) through whose eyes we witness the major events of the 20th century. Amory Clay’s relationships with men – her father, her lovers, her husband, a late flowering lust, her daughter’s inamorato – are conditioned by combat and the repression of what is done or left undone in war. As with Restless, there is an examination of how younger generations deal with the compromises of the old. There is still the same comedy that typified his first novel, A Good Man In Africa, though it’s more shrewd and less antic. It is especially sharp when dealing with stereotypically “British” attitudes (and there are laugh-out-loud moments, for example, the procurement of a fake moustache to practise kissing in a girls’ school).

As one would expect from the author of the fictitious biography, Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, the text is judiciously peppered with what the reader is encouraged to believe are Amory’s own photographs. It’s a typically Boydian wink that the epigraph, from which the title is taken, comes from one of the fictitious characters in the novel.

Amory’s father, an intermittently successful ghost story writer, comes back from the Great War haunted. Affection comes from her uncle, who gives her her first camera. Through that lens we see Edwardian society London, Weimar Germany, post-Depression America, the British Union of Fascists, the Second World War in France, a Highland estate in post-war decline (Boyd is at his most Waugh-like in this section), Vietnam and drop-out communities in California. It’s the kind of panoramic scope the reader has come to expect from Boyd.

Early on, she tells her schoolteacher that she wants to live, and it is certainly a replete life. The title is a clever pun – not all the sweet caresses are Amory’s canoodlings – and signals An Issue, which is actually handled with a great deal of sensitivity and tact, and which balances Amory’s determination and impetuosity very skilfully indeed. There is also a very neatly concealed revelation on the last page. I would advise the reader to keep a careful note of the dates, and that even committing the cardinal sin of turning to the last page first won’t reveal it.

There is a great deal to admire here. Uncle Greville also introduces Amory to a game in which anyone they meet has to be summarised and visualised in just four adjectives. It is especially clever as the reader will find a great many more than four adjectives running through their head in attempting to “fix” Amory’s character; by turns honourable, reckless, naïve, thrawn, tragic, sardonic, gleefully open and mysteriously reserved.

Boyd plays the game himself: in the final pages Amory muses on her “three score years and ten” which “have been rich and intensely sad, fascinating, droll, absurd and terrifying – sometimes – and difficult and painful and happy. Complicated, in other words”. The “four adjective rule” allows the minor characters a degree of depth.

Curiously, many of the best passages forgo the grand sweep of history altogether. Amory’s father, before the war, does handstands to entertain his daughters, walking around and saying, “I look at you girls hanging from your feet like bats and I feel sorry for you, oh, yes, in your topsy-turvy world with the earth above and the sky below”. It’s a charming vignette, suffused with melancholy – he never does handstands after the war – and its view of the world turned upside down spidering out through the narrative.

In one of the later sections, set in the 1970s with Amory living in a Highland cottage, she has a conversation with a neighbour, a retired astrophysicist. Explaining the problems with the Standard Model of cosmology, she tells Amory about dark matter and dark energy, those postulates that “explain the things that don’t add up, in theory”. Boyd gets in his rebuttal early – the astrophysicist immediately gripes about the appropriation of hard science into metaphor, but Amory runs with it anyway, imagining “dark” love (why you fell and feel for the wrong person), “dark” illness, “dark” politics. “The ‘dark’ concept explains why you can’t explain things,” she says. “It’s wonderfully liberating. Why won’t my car start this morning? It started yesterday. ‘Dark’ auto-engineering… You see, the ‘standard model’ of the human condition just doesn’t work either.”

This is quite beautiful. Boyd is one of the only novelists I can imagine who might write a whole novel set during a dinner party where interesting, witty, memorable things could occur. In a way, his most famous “hook” – the swathe of great events – is the part he needs least. I would never regret the very pleasant afternoon I spent reading this novel. But there is something so polished and smooth-running about it as to seem almost disingenuous. It might not stall or misfire, but one never feels the accelerator being pushed to the floor either.

It might be the chutzpah of introducing real historical figures is missing, or the shimmer of criminality. It is nevertheless supremely accomplished, in both the positive and negative senses that word can bear.

Trigger Mortis

Anthony Horowitz

Orion, £18.99

IN THE latest of the Bond novels written after Ian Fleming’s death, Anthony Horowitz continues the franchise. He isn’t the first but he did have an advantage; a 500-word unfinished extract written by Fleming involving a car racing plot was passed on by the author’s estate. The piece is in Horowitz’s finished novel, Trigger Mortis, but it is impossible to see the join.

His novel is reverential to the Bond books, not the films, so don’t expect any 1970s leather blouson jackets. This is dark but stylish mid-Cold War Britain as the space race hots up. The story starts with our hero in bed with none other than Pussy Galore, dating the action two weeks after the death of her cohort and his arch-enemy, Auric Goldfinger.

Fortunately for our old commitment-phobe a new mission is soon presented which involves Bond leaving Pussy and learning to drive a Formula One car to enter a race in Nürburgring and foil murderous SMERSH agents. There he meets the evil Korean businessman, Sin Jai-Seong, and his next love interest, Jeopardy Lane.

There follows sex, violence and cocktail instructions with all the elements necessary for Bond – the spy slipping uninvited into his enemy’s glamorous party and the complicated method by which Sin means to dispatch him after a revelation of a world domination plan. Alongside, there is enough period sexism and casual racism to take the modern reader’s breath away – Bond says he prefers his women resistant, not compliant, and attributes character according to racial stereotype.

There are missteps. I presume that Horowitz chose to ignore the lampooning of the Austin Powers films. Why else would he include Bond musing on the impact of the deaths of henchmen? And at one point 007 thanks Jeopardy for “always being there for him”, which invokes more cringe than the punny title.

But such rare lapses perhaps go to illustrate that this is a fitting sequel to the Fleming novels. It would be easy to dismiss as the light reading enjoyed by your average Top Gear audience, but even if that is true, it is an enjoyable offering.

Kirsty McLuckie

Children Of The Master

Andrew Marr

HarperCollins, £18.99

GIVEN that this book has been written by one of Britain’s foremost journalists, it was perhaps appropriate that this review was done in the finest journalistic traditions – with a couple of drinks on board and perilously close to deadline.

So it’s just as well that, far from sending you to sleep, Marr’s second novel is something of a page-turner. Overlooking the odd irritating literary flourish, it benefits from an entertaining and fluent style as well as the sort of mastery of Machiavellian political machination that one would expect of someone from his background.

Set in the near future, the two main characters in this political thriller about a Labour leadership race are a Blairite lesbian politician and a Scottish Labour MP (something of an endangered species these days) from Ayrshire.

Marr successfully blends fact with fiction freely to create a convincing political landscape that will be instantly recognisable to those with even the most cursory interest in current affairs.

The fallout from the No vote in the Scottish independence referendum still lingers and Britain has voted to leave the EU (we’ll have to wait to find out what happens on that one).

There are disgraced bankers, old-fashioned Labour fixers with questionable morals, a narcissistic newspaper columnist, corruption and memories of a terrible massacre of Scottish children linked to the cover-up of a paedophile sex-ring and its connections to a Tory politician.

The Master is a former Labour prime minister who was once good at winning elections but has grown impatient with the leftwards direction taken by the party (sound familiar?).

Amid the intrigue there are some excellent jokes and the plot bounces along merrily. An entertaining interlude about the vagaries of the newspaper industry takes some delicious swipes at some of the real-life characters within – which couldn’t fail to amuse this fellow political hack.

Tom Peterkin