I've recently had more time to read, and that pile by my bedside has finally had the dust brushed off the top of it. There's still a long way to go but whenever I can I'm going to try and blog about the books I read - starting here with William Boyd's latest novel, Sweet Caress, which Bloomsbury will publish this coming September, and Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party, published by Virago.
The first thing to say about both of these novels - both beautifully crafted literary works - is just how easy they are to read, both compelling the reader to turn the page and discover yet more about the lives of the women portrayed within them.
Upstairs at the Party resonated with me because it tells the story of Adele, a woman whose childhood has been formed by the loss of parent she's dearly loved, and who then goes on to form new bonds in the Seventies, at university. The university is un-named but I'm pretty sure it must be York, with the rural campus situation, and descriptions of the duck ponds. This brave new world (a somewhat flawed institution when it comes to its students' pastoral care) provides the claustrophobic set for all the new relationships forced between very different young people whose lives are chaotically gathered together.
These characters are brilliantly drawn - especially the glamorous and androgynous Evie and Stevie, the daringly cool fashion icons who seem to appear out of nowhere, casting a spell of intrigue and lust among their fellow students. But dark secrets lie at both their hearts, and those secrets will lead to tragedy on the night of Adele's twentieth birthday party, after which she will be haunted well into her middle age - until certain mysteries are revealed.
This novel is nostalgic and complex, sceptical and very sad - with passages of yearning that will tug at your heart so hard it hurts.
Sweet Caress is another wonderful book from William Boyd who has become a great favourite of mine. As so often in his novels the theme of war is never far away, from the trenches of France, to Vietnam. And here, with the story of Amory Clay, we see a character whose life has been almost entirely informed by the consequences of such strife throughout the twentieth century.
Amory's childhood is shadowed by the the effects of WW1 on her father - which provides a fine contrast to the years that the young woman spends in Germany, immersed in the Berlin underworld where she works as a photographer. Her images, when shown in London, will be deemed to be obscene. But they lead her to America, employed by a wealthy newspaper magnate with whom she becomes very closely involved.
Much like Adele in Upstairs at the Party, Amory's affairs of the heart are rarely straight forward or what she might hope, but all continue to draw her into the arenas of the wars where she works as a picture reporter, or else is dramatically entwined in the ravages those conflicts leave as scars on the bodies - and in the minds - of those she comes to love the most.
Sweet Caress uses old black-and-white prints throughout the pages of the book. (Are these licensed old prints, or have they been staged especially for the novel? I'm not sure.) The images demonstrate Amory's work, and they show us her lovers and family members; a device I really like to add another level of immersion and 'reality'. But, even without them, I could not help but be entirely drawn into the traumatic and often glamorous world described through the voice of Amory Clay. By the end of the novel I felt as if I knew her intimately myself - and that is the sign of the very best writing.
William Boyd is a master of story telling. And here, in four words (to echo a game that Amory very often plays when describing other characters) Sweet Caress is: Compelling. Intriguing. Heartbreaking. Redemptive.
It's going to be huge.