Friday, February 5, 2016

Shaped by war

While a high school student, as I mentioned here a few weeks ago, I viewed history as the story of war, with interludes in between when nations recovered from the last war and prepared for the next. In his new novel, Sweet Caress, William Boyd seems to view his main character and narrator Amory Clay from the same perspective. She is a 20th century woman, born in 1908 and dying in 1983, and her life is shaped by the century's wars virtually from beginning to end.

Her father is a writer before the Great War. He survives combat, but afterward he is a shell of the man he once was. At his lowest point, he picks up Amory from her school and deliberately drives the car into a lake, determined to die and take his favorite daughter with him. Both survive, but Amory is forever changed.

She becomes a photographer, gets beaten up by fascists while trying to get shots of a parade and, after the next war breaks out, has some harrowing experiences following the Allied army into Europe. Her brother dies in World War II, and the war veteran she marries is, like her father, ruined psychologically by his experiences.

In her 60s, Amory leaves her twin daughters behind in Scotland and becomes a war correspondent in Vietnam. She is wounded by the Vietcong, yet her greatest danger comes from the British. Returning home, she learns that Blythe, one of her daughters, has run away to the United States and, even at that distance, has had her own life shaped by the war.

This photographer's story comes complete with photographs throughout, raising a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Did Boyd find photos to illustrate his story or shape his story around the photos he found? I suspect it was a little of each. In any case the photographs greatly enhance the novel.

In case anyone needs reminding, Sweet Caress suggests the stupidity and futility of war, yet in the end the novel manages to be life-affirming. It is not just war that shapes our lives and our history. It is also those sweet caresses of peace in between.

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