I've just finished William Boyd's latest novel, Sweet Caress. I've read a number of his novels over the years, none of them likely to make my all time top 20 novels, but each of them worth the reading. My favourites are probably Brazzaville Beach and Any Human Heart. These two novels exhibit two of Boyd's strengths as a novelist. Any Human Heart is written as a lifelong journal and a micro study of one person's life through all the relationships that make up that life. It begins to matter how the book ends because the central character has begun to matter, and how his life turns out is something the reader wants to know, having accompanied him though much of the 20th Century.
Brazzaville Beach is a much more substantial novel which reads at times like a thriller and at other times explores profound and at times disturbing aspects of human behaviour. A struggling marriage, higher maths, and ecological science and research into primates all weave together in a story that is a modern parable. I found echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene's A Burnt Out Case. Not that Boyd borrows from them or is merely derivative; more that he writes of Africa in a way which respects its otherness, its mystery, and recognises the ambiguity, even ambivalence of human scientific dominance as a way of managing the world through control, especially when that control is through applied science and technological mastery. The menace of the unknown is disturbingly convincing in the violent tribalism of chimpanzee colonies, with their echoes in human societies of aggression, cruelty and violence.
Sweet Caress is less compelling than Brazzaville Beach, but has more drive and impetus than Any Human Heart. It is the life story of a woman photographer from 1917 till 1977, the story told as narrative interspersed by reflections from the author later in life. The book also has a number of photos, illustrations of the story - I found these unconvincing, ordinary and unnecessary in a novel, and annoyingly fuzzy; leave them out and save 20-30 pages per volume. The early life is of a girl raised in a home then boarding school, desperate for security, finding her way later in London as a photographer's assistant. Out of this comes a daring experiment covertly photographing the sub-culture of pre-war Berlin. The subsequent exhibition in London made her name, or at least made her infamous. From there to America, then to France as a photographer accompanying the invasion force, then followed marriage to a war hero, widowhood, a year as a war photogtrapher in Vietnam, and on the way through her life, encounters with the six men who were her lovers, one of whom was her husband.
The central character is Amory Clay, and her story is rooted in her search for love, with an equal passion for photography. Through her camera Amory seeks to explore and even explain the world, through artistic expression, by fixing snapshots of history, attempting the capture of a moment, crystalising an event in an unforgettable image. It would be a finer novel if there had been some attempt to explain the lure of the camera, some exploration of photography as art and the human desire to see deeply and see far. I wondered if Boyd might have written with more depth if he had read Susan Sontag. Amory's fascination with the camera, the photograph and the act of framing moments of time and angles of view are never explained or explored in the flow of the narrative; but such reflective paragraphs might have resulted in a more thickly textured novel, and engaged the reader at that more satisfying level of learning new ways of looking at the world. The novel is the poorer for that deficit, because Amory Clay remains throughout a woman whose experience is rarely probed at the levels of motive and purpose; nor is the reader persuaded to believe that her existential anxieties, some rooted in her father's troubled life, are sufficient to carry the weight of a 60 year autobiography.
But I finished the book, and I enjoyed it. There are important issues explored in the bygoing; the impact of mental ill health on a young family; the moral quicksand of pre-war Berlin and the rise of nazism in Germany and the blackshirts in Britain; war seen with the eye of the reporting photographer looking for images that sell; alcoholism as a solvent that corrodes love; life itself and what might make a person wonder if it's worth going on.
As a human being I learn much about my own inner climate from reading novels. As a minister I am alert to pastoral and relational insights. As one interested in words, written and spoken, I appreciate a well told and well written story. As a reader, I don't expect every novel to be "gripping", "profound", "unputdownable" or be a contender for the Booker or any other prize. I can settle for a good story with interesting issues and a few good observations on human nature, the vicissitudes of life, and the longing for love, significance and some meaning that is the restless centre of our being. This book achieved that.