Life less ordinary

Life less ordinary

It is somewhat difficult, if not unnerving, for a reviewer to come out unscathed after reading Sweet Caress. Amory Clay, a professional photographer, was born on March 7, 1908 and died on June 23, 1983 “by her own hand”, adds William Boyd. Realistic fiction is dime a dozen, but not this kind of realism which gives us dates, photographs and other memorabilia of a fictive personality, capped with a suicide note written on her 70th birthday, as she gulps down sleeping pills at fixed intervals, but stops midway. So realistic that there could be a reader or two who could start fantasising like Amory: “Yes, my life has been very complicated but, I realise, it’s the complications that have engaged me and made me feel alive.” So she gives herself another five years.

Boyd’s aim is a gutsy heroine, far from the high-strung Virginia Woolf or the poetic Sylvia Plath or Elise Cowen, and is sure to go well with the dear readers of today. The story begins with Amory’s teen crush for her uncle Greville who has presented her with a camera which would inspire her to take up photography as a profession. On Grenville’s advice, she turns to Lockwood Mower. And then, and then…

A photographer of society events, soon Amory finds herself in Berlin. She now decides to “descend deeper into Berlin’s dark underbelly”. We will pass over the everyday, dull experience of millions in this globe that Amory takes the trouble to photograph, and the helpful hint regarding the uses of toothpaste for menfolk. Her first photography exhibition, “Berlin by Night”, opens in London West End. Having led us so far in the twilight zone of sex workers, the wily Boyd gives the opinion of the English climate which is still quite Victorian. The Daily Express writes: “Outrageous exhibitionism masquerading as art: Miss Clay dips her camera in the most putrid and decadent slime she could find… Leering men consort with barely clothed women… bestial… degrading.” Soon other papers take up the chant. All the photographs are carted away to the Seville Row police station. Despite this uncertain start, Boyd keeps his fictional ball rolling with amazing ease.

There are changes in the scenario, but it is the same Amory and the same narrative content. Berlin gives place to America, “Cleve stood naked at the window…” Well, a professional photographer in New York city needs a couple of passionate affairs to give vim and vigour to the view from the lens, right? But soon Boyd delivers a crisp blow. The war years bring Amory back to England. P G Wodehouse and H G Wells, among others, have used Sir Oswald Mosley, the fascist leader as a fictional character, but Boyd sweeps him in as the real-life leader of the Blackshirts with pages and pages on the Maroon Street Riot and the Battle of Cable Street. Sex is given a holiday and we lap up history. Amory gets beaten up mercilessly by the fascists and there is the long hospital stay with its own clinical ambience. Boyd is a compulsive storyteller, and Sweet Caress is crowded with events.

Now to Amory’s fashion photography in America: she is successful but hates the “stiffness, fakery, self-consciousness, mediocrity” of it all. Another change in gear. If Pearl Harbour is here, can D-Day be far behind? The Dead. The Missing. Amory as a war photographer who runs the Global Photo Watch office in London, in Paris. Boyd now gets a Baron Farr of Glencrossnan marry Amory (yes, marry) and they become parents of twin girls. New experiences in domesticity, the agony of declining fortunes, widowhood, photographer again. Sweet Caress, which had opened on a somewhat unsure note, gradually acquires wings of serious thought, moving around a set of unforgettable characters like Lockwood, Charbonneau, Cleve. The best of Boyd are Amory’s Vietnam days which describe the worst of human situations. Why Vietnam? All War is evil.

“I was close to the disembarked soldiers now — some standing, some sitting on the ground, all of them smoking — and I recognised that air of filthy, blank exhaustion about them that comes upon soldiers after hours of combat, of being under fire. I’d seen it before at Wesel in 1945 — and once seen, never forgotten.”

Vietnam and the broken life of her daughter Blythe overwhelm Amory. Suicide seems a good way out, but the fighter in her draws her away from the brink. She does take the plunge five years later. Amory Clay is certainly an unforgettable heroine who never allowed winter to infect her soul despite living in a disaster-ridden century. A role-model in her own way.

 

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