Often when publishers release novels from well-known British authors in August or September, it is usually with one eye on the approaching awards season - particularly the Man Booker Prize.
So when the recent longlist for said award was presented there were the usual gasps from people who follow such things over who had and had not been included. Where was Atwood, Rushdie, Franzen, Atkinson and Ishiguro? And William Boyd (Any Human Heart, Restless, Solo) - doesn't he have a new one out soon? He does and it is called Sweet Caress, due in shops later this month. Should we be surprised that it didn't make the longlist? No - we should not.
The book tells the life story of Amory Clay, starting with her early British school life and eccentric family before moving swiftly on to her first work experiences as a photographer taking party snaps of society's upper class. Minor controversy forces her to Berlin, where she quickly becomes entwined in surreptitiously photographing prostitutes and their furtive clients in the nightclubs and brothels of 1920s Germany. Upon return to England, more minor controversy and a chance meeting with a dashing magazine publisher takes her to the United States.
And so it goes. Every couple of chapters sees Amory briefly skirting some major historical event (fascist rallies in 1930s London, World War II, post-war France, the Vietnam War, US sixties counter-culture hippies) - usually meeting a new love interest - before she feels the pull of Old Blighty and hastily returns to the UK.
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Boyd is an excellent writer and the history and places profiled have been very well researched, but the speed at which Amory moves around Europe and the globe means that every character other our heroine feels like little more than an extended cameo appearance - and this includes her parents, brother and sister. You barely get to know any of them before Amory is off again.
The other notable element in Boyd's latest is the inclusion of seventy or so black and white photographs scattered throughout the book, used to illustrate the story with examples of Amory's photography or shots of Amory by other characters. These images are inserted in a Sebaldesque manner throughout the text, and as a fan of novels with images I was initially pleased to see their inclusion. However, as most of them purport to be taken by Amory - by all counts a talented and well respected photographer in the novel - it's disappointing to see that most of them are - to be frank - awful. The photos are badly cropped or blurred, shot too far away or simply as pedestrian as your families old holiday snaps.
In fact, the majority of the images may be old holiday snaps. The photos are 'found' pictures that have just fallen through history without an owner or explanation. Which had me thinking, did Boyd simply find a whole lot of old shots and try and construct a flimsy story around them, or did he have a story and then try to shoehorn in a series of random images? I suspect it is a bit of both, but this puzzle had me thinking about it far more than the comings and goings of Ms Clay - which I am sure was not Boyd's intention.
Combined with this the fact that the story switches back and forth in time between Amory's past and her current isolated existence hold up in a cottage on Scotland's windswept Atlantic coast, and the novel may sound confusing. This is far from the case. I found it an easy, undemanding and not unpleasant read. If you connect with ambitious Amory's big dreams - but tiny attention span, there is a lot to enjoy here, but I found the overall lack of tension or extended character interaction curiously unengaging. So although it may not grip as a novel, Sweet Caress probably has all the qualities looked for in a first-rate, five-part BBC drama series.
Sweet Caress by William Boyd
Published August 27, 464 pages