Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Do not ask me why I kept reading William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, right up until the stupid end, but welcome to my second one-star review for 2018. I’ll get straight to the point (unlike Boyd).

Sweet Caress is the life story of fictional photographer Amory Clay and it begins in England, in 1908. The novel covers Amory’s childhood, her career as a photographer, her experiences during both World Wars and the Vietnam War, and her relationships. It’s astounding that a book about a female in an unconventional role (war photographer), could be so, so boring,

Firstly, I have no issue with male authors writing from the perspective of a female character or vice versa. It’s about authenticity, and an authentic voice makes the gender of an author irrelevant. When it’s not authentic, it jars and such was the case with Amory. From her static observations about the people around her to her weird descriptions of sex, Amory was unconvincing on every level. Most annoying was that Blake, in what I believe was his attempt at the female gaze, included constant references to fashion and food (because all women care about clothes and belong in the kitchen, right?).

I turned round to see John Oberkamp standing there. He was in jeans and a tight, ultramarine, big-collared shirt.

and one paragraph later

She was wearing white jeans and a white shirt.

and then

…the bargirls sitting around in their lurid miniskirts and bikini tops, chatting…

A food example –

Our meal arrived…rare steaks with a tomato salad. Charbonneau poured the Duhart-Milon.

and on the next page (after the dinner and awkward sex)

We ate eggs Benedict and drank cold Chablis.

I didn’t have to search for those examples, I just opened the book. It’s 447 fricking pages of the same.

Secondly, the book includes photographs. Apparently Boyd collected vintage photographs and wove the story around them. Again, the problem is authenticity. The photographs might be vintage, the story might suit the photographs but the photographs are all a bit shit. Which is a problem when Amory is a photographer. In the years I spent producing publications for government, I wore out the phrase “Your publication is only as good as the worst image.” Because it’s true – people notice bad photographs. The photographs Boyd has used in Sweet Caress do nothing to create a sense of time and place, instead they provide visual evidence of the contrived story.

Lastly, Boyd should note that beginning every second paragraph with “I remember…” doesn’t make it a (fictitious) memoir, it just makes it repetitive.

I am in the minority regarding Sweet Caress. Over at Goodreads it’s rated 3.95. Either Boyd has lots of mates on Goodreads or I’ve missed something.

1/5 Boring.

I began to eat the food that the family ate – steak pies, roast chicken, broccoli, raspberry crumble…

Try these raspberry crumble bars by Half Baked Harvest.

18 responses

  1. Ha! As you can see at Goodreads, I ranked it one-star too but I abandoned it. My review if you can call it that: “Not for me. I can do disjointed narratives, and I can bear with blokes narrating the female PoV, but after 50 pages it was time to give up. Utterly unconvincing, IMO”.

    And now Penguin (who have mostly given up on sending me anything because I don’t hide my disappointment with their stuff) has sent me Love is Blind. It’s in my ‘probably chuck-it-out’ pile but I do have a friend whose opinion I respect who persuaded me to add Any Human Heart to my Wishlist. So I will give it 50 pages, just to be fair. (If I ever have time, that is. It’s not a high priority).

    But seriously, how do writers get away with this? When I think of the truly enjoyable, thought-provoking books by Australian authors who would kill for the sort of exposure that a so-ordinary British author like Boyd gets in this country, it makes me wonder what publishers like Penguin et al are doing. They publish dross and they ignore the gems…
    … and then I stumble on a beautiful Penguin collection of short stories by Hans Fallada from their Modern Classics range, (https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/09/21/tales-from-the-underworld-by-hans-fallada-translated-by-michael-hofmann-bookreview/) and I think I know the answer. They used to have staff who knew what good writing was, and now they don’t.

    • I wondered the same thing about this book (the copy I had from the library had the added ‘bonus’ (!) of a ‘Women’s Weekly Great Read’ sticker) but I think for some authors, they don’t have editors who have the guts to say “Your previous work is great but this is rubbish.”

      I must say that I go into a book expecting to enjoy it. I don’t start with my critical hat on, instead, I simply want to be entertained. But with books like this, once I start reading critically, I can’t stop. It probably explains why I find it difficult to write reviews of books that I give five stars to – I get so swept along that I don’t pick it apart as I read.

      I’ll keep an eye out for that Fallada – sounds like my kind of collection.

  2. Someone donated that book to me and I thought it might be a light summer read, but it was taking up space on the shelf and in a ruthless cull I donated two large shopping bags if books to a sale and decided to move this one on unread. Thank you for the confirmation that it’s indeed better on someone else’s shelf.

  3. Ha, your opening lines delighted me — because I could say the same thing about the book right now. I don’t know why I’m continuing with this stupid book all the way to the stupid end, except that maybe I’m hoping there will be something to have made it all worthwhile in the 20% I have left. Somehow, I doubt it though.

    • I really should have ditched this one earlier but the outstanding reviews on Goodreads kept me pushing on… And then I reach a certain point in a bad book that I do want to finish, just to see if the author can keep it up until the end… Boyd can!

    • Well I guess your blog is structured in a way that highlights the good books. I review almost everything I read – the good and the bad, figuring it’s a community service to say what I hated! Also, one-star reviews are the easiest to write (and I reckon five star reviews are the hardest). Maybe a theme for one of your posts is simply ‘one star’ and you can share all the books you think we should avoid? 😀

  4. I too enjoy a one star review. And I don’t ever like men writing a female POV- it’s just guesswork not insight (IMHO), interesting that women don’t mind. I’ve just finished Sweet Tooth in my quest to find something by Ian McEwan that I like. Maybe 2 stars but no more, and another female POV done badly.

    • I’m now trying to think of examples of male authors that write from the female POV well… it’s tricky. Richard Yates in Easter Parade is the only book coming to mind.

      Casting my mind back to Sweet Tooth, I remember that I didn’t care much for the female character or the main story but I did like the stories-within-the-story. McEwan is so patchy and yet I usually get around to reading whatever he publishes, in the hope that it will be up there with Atonement and Chesil Beach.

  5. I love William Boyd, but understand that his production is somewhat uneven. Thanks for sharing this one, which I will not have to read. I have read and loved Restless and Brazzaville Beach. I did enjoy Waiting for Sunrise, although the story had inconsistencies. Just started Ordinary Thunderstorms. Hopefully, one of his better novels.

  6. Pingback: 2018: What I Read | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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