I needed this book. William Boyd's 'Sweet Caress' was a charity shop find in Torquay. I reviewed Any Human Heart way back at the beginning of the blog in 2009 (and subsequently listed it as one of my top ten favourite books when I reached 1000 posts in 2016). I loved it. I reviewed Love is Blind in 2018 but did not feel the same way, noting the lack of depth in his female characters. But Sweet Caress did for me exactly what Any Human Heart did, it felt real.
I don't know if other people do this, but I have an automatic feeling of fondness for anyone who shares a name with people I love. Real people, or characters in books. There is not logic to it. It also applies to people who share my name. I had a lovely exchange with a lady in the callers office once because her name was Martine and we bonded momentarily over having an unusual name. I had a peculiar experience with Rape, a love story by Joyce Carol Oates because the main character was called Martine. And I bonded with Armory Clay because she shares my birthday. The book opens and closes with the shh, shh, shh of the ocean and it reminded me of this that I wrote during my visit to Costa Rica (which reminded me that I am 58, and not 56 as I keep thinking). I love the photos in the book (which reminded me of Austerlitz, which also has photos for added realism), and the references throughout to things that really happen and, occasionally, to real people (though less so than AHH which has a long section with the Duke of Windsor). As a teenager Armory survives an attempted drowning by her father, and his mental breakdown, and that of other men in her life affected by war punctuates the book. It is not an anti war book but its theme is the way that the impact of war echoes across time and through generations, leaving indelible traces. She becomes a photographer which gives her a career that hops back and forth across the Atlantic and takes her to the front line in France. People and places recur as her fortunes wax and wane. She falls in and out of love. I liked her because she made real choices, things do not happen to her, she makes them happen. The only thing that annoyed me was the vaginal bleeding. So she gets beaten up during the Maroon Street Riot (apparently not real), which results in internal injuries and mysterious bleeding. This was the 1930s, they would have done a hysterectomy and had done with it. So it felt like a device to explain how a sexually active young woman does not get pregnant, but leaves her able, equally mysteriously, to conceive later in life. But I can overlook small niggles in the grand scheme of the satisfying period detail. So, quotes. The book moves through time across most of the 20th century, but is punctuated by a diary from 1977. This kind of nicely sums up her life philosophy: "In anyone's house at any given time there will, I suppose, be half a dozen appliances or components not functioning properly. A light fused, a door-handle loose, a floorboard creaking, an electric iron inexplicably giving no heat. In the cottage's case, for example, there is a permanently dripping cold tap in the bathroom, a drawer in the kitchen that will not fully shut, and an armchair that has mysteriously lost one castor. Also, the Hillman Imp seems to be leaking oil from somewhere, judging from the dark stains on the gravel and my wireless reception will switch off completely for ten minutes or so, offering up muffled voices obscured by crackling gunfire, before it bizarrely resumes normal service.
As with your house, so with your body. I've a bruise on my shin, the remains of a splinter in my palm that seems to be turning septic, an ingrowing big toenail and my left knee cartilage twinges with a spasm of pain when I rise from a seat. We make do - favour the right leg, use the left hand, slip a paperback under the armchair where the caster should be. It amazes me what compromises we happily live with. We limp along, patching up, improvising." (p.175-6)
More philosophical musings:
"I was thinking about the mistakes we all make - or rather the concept of a 'mistake'. It's something that can only be realised in hindsight - big mistake or small one. It was a mistake to marry him. It was a mistake to got o Brighton on a bank holiday. It was a mistake to write that letter in red ink. It was a mistake to have left home without an umbrella. We don't sense mistakes coming, there's this crucial unforeseen factor to them. So I found myself asking the question: what is the opposite of a mistake? And I realised there wasn't a word, in fact, precisely because a mistake always arises from best intentions that go awry. You can't set out to make a mistake. Mistakes happen - there's nothing we can do about them.
I walked along the beach on my little bay thinking of Xan. He was only twenty-seven. Almost 100,000 RAF airmen died during the Second World War, I read somewhere. The fact that Xan was one unit in that huge number makes it all the more terrible. One butcher's bill for one family amongst the myriad served up by that conflict." (p.255)
After the war she marries abruptly and goes to live as Lady Farr in Scotland, having twin daughters, until she is widowed, a period not lingered over. Some time passes and she becomes restless and manages, through connections, to get a posting as a photographer to Vietnam. She manages to keep her distance from the horrors of the war, photographing the place and its people, but then, when visiting an airbase, she appears to witness something untoward and it abruptly returned to England by the authorities. It is strange that I found it more threatening than any of the war scenes, and here she describes her feelings of powerlessness:
"And then they both gave me tight little smiles and we stood up. Brown asked if i had any money and I said only American dollars. He gave me a £10 note that I had to sign a chit for and I was shown back to the front door by puce-suit where my suitcase was waiting for me.
I travelled down in the lift alone and stepped out into the first glimmerings of dawn in St John's Wood. I hailed a passing taxi and asked to be taken to an all-night café. This proved to be in Victoria bus station where - beneath blazing fluorescent light - I ate, and hugely relished, a greasy breakfast and drank many cups of strong tea.
But I was feeling increasingly strange as I sat there in the refulgent cafeteria considering what had just happened to me in the last forty-eight hours or so and I realised I had experienced this sensation before but couldn't remember when. That sense of fearful powerlessness; of other forces suddenly taking over the direction of your life that you had chosen; of being completely out of your depth in what you thought was familiar society. And then I remembered. My 'obscenity' trial over my Berlin photographs, all those decades ago - sitting in the Bow Street Magistrates' Court pleading guilty when I knew I was innocent; learning that my photographs were due to be destroyed; being admonished and humiliated by the judge.
When you encounter the implacable power of the state it's a deeply destabilising moment. In an ordinary life it happens very rarely - maybe never, maybe once or twice. But your individual being, your individual nature, seems suddenly worth nothing - you feel expendable - and that's what frightens you, fundamentally, that's what makes your bowels loosen." (p. 401-2)
It is a while since I have found myself heading to bed early because my book is calling and sitting up later than I should, although that was ok as I have been on leave this week. It was an extremely satisfying read, full of characters to care about and lives well lived. It followed an almost identical format to Any Human Heart, I guess if you have found a formula that works, you stick with it. I take back what I said earlier about his women characters.
"It was still light so I summoned Flam and we walked down to the bay. I stood on the small crescent beach, as Flam roved around the tide rack and rock pools, and I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformation of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon, listening to the sea's interminable call for silence - shh, shh, shh." (p.6)
Stay safe. Be kind. Listen to the ocean.