I’ve just been reading William Boyd’s Sweet Caress which I picked up when I spotted its photography connections. It’s about a girl growing up in the twenties who, after a family trauma, joins her uncle as a society photographer in London then unshackles herself from an unhealthy relationship to reinvent herself several times over and in as many places: in from Berlin to Mexico, New York and ultimately Vietnam. It didn’t reel me in straight away and I noted a consensus amongst Amazon reviewers that it was ‘over-long’. I would say ‘episodic’ is more the case, but it does take its time to get where it’s going. On the other hand, that isn’t always a bad thing.
It’s a straightforward chronological narrative(contrast Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life), told by Amory Clay as she looks back on the different lives she has led from her final abode – a cottage in a remote corner of the Highlands. For a while the lack of a driving plot frustrated me, but I was eventually drawn in to this account of a restless soul who happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture iconic images of the twentieth century.
Initially, one of the barriers to my enjoyment was the use of photographs incorporated into the narrative. They look like contemporary snapshots (their graininess is emphasised by being printed on ordinary book paper) and are labelled as illustrations of Amory Clay’s life and work. But, wait a minute. This is fiction. These look like authentic illustrations but where did they come from and, most of all, why on earth are they there? The ‘acknowledgements’ refer to the many real photographers mentioned in the book but not to these photographs. Mr Boyd is either playing with the truth or teasing the reader or both, and I’m not sure I like it.
There was nothing for it but to ask Google what was going on, and it turns out that William Boyd is a collector of ‘found’ photographs – i.e. photos whose origin is unknown, photos lost by their original owners. As the Telegraph interviewer puts it,
These uncredited images of unknown subjects – collected by Boyd over many years, originally without intent – are now freighted with narrative significance.
Aha – I think of Boyd arranging his motley collection of photos into a kind of story board and immediately I like Sweet Caress better than I did. But no, it appears he had the story in his head and went looking for these illustrations, occasionally letting them take the plot in a new direction. Boyd likes trying to make fiction ‘seem so real you forget it is fiction’. Isn’t all fiction doing that same thing? Isn’t it possible to do this with just words? But the explanation does stop me fretting.
Maybe it’s this new found knowledge or maybe it’s coincidental, but from this point on I find myself at peace with the book. I enjoy picking it up in a very busy fortnight to see where and when we’re heading next. Its episodic nature (very many chapters begin ‘I remember’) suits my mindset.
Although Boyd claims to be ‘technically inept’ (a bit like me then!), there’s plenty to interest the photographer – armchair or otherwise. For instance his heroine claims there are only thirteen genres of photography (that many?!) and I like the way she explains her preference for monochrome images.
“The black and white image was in some ways photography’s defining feature – that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artifice: paradoxically, monochrome – because it was so evidently unnatural – was what made a photograph work best.”
After so many months spent in the company of early photographs, I’ll drink to that.
Ironically, the paperback edition I read had a much more colourful (and to me less suitable) cover, but don’t let that put you off if you fancy a photographic adventure.