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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

History As Theme-Park

Sweet Caress - William Boyd

Amory Clay has been enjoying an uneventful middle-class childhood until her father returns, deeply traumatised, from the trenches of the First World War and unsuccessfully attempts to kill himself and her by driving them both into a lake. Now it is Amory who is traumatised. Her promising academic career disintegrates and instead of going to Oxford to study History, she becomes an assistant to her uncle, a society photographer.

It turns out to be the beginning of a career as a photo-journalist that allows her to witness Berlin at the height of its pre-war decadence, Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts marching through East London and the Allied invasion of Normandy. She rubs shoulders with celebrities - even Marlene Dietrich makes a cameo appearance - and has a series of affairs, finally marrying a Scottish Lord and settling down with him on his estate where she is unable to prevent him drinking himself to death.

Gambling debts and her husband's carelessness about his will, leave her in greatly reduced circumstances. So she dusts off her camera once more and sets off for Vietnam. She's in her sixties now but it doesn't stop her dodging bullets and having sex with men half her age.

Structured as pseudo-autobiography, the text is peppered with photographs purporting to be by Amory herself and there is an acknowledgements page at the end in which, I suspect, real and fictional names are deliberately mixed together to bolster the illusion. It's a clever device, allowing the author scope to include almost anything he likes from the compendium of the twentieth century's worst excesses. The downside is that the overall effect is somewhat episodic and the impact of the novel depends to a very great extent on what you feel about the central character.

Therein lies my principal dissatisfaction with this novel.  I didn't really care about Amory Clay, perhaps because I wasn't entirely convinced by her. She always felt to me a bit too much like a man's idea of a free-spirited woman. And if you don't care about the protagonist the whole thing feels a bit like history as theme-park. It's highly readable and very entertaining but I was always slightly troubled by a sense that terrible events were being trivialised.