Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

Of chimps and humans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war, though this strand has less weight than the other two.

While each strand is told linearly in time, the book cuts between them so that the reader is following them all simultaneously. Hope’s marriage to John is happy at first. She is contentedly working as an ecologist mapping ancient hedgerows, while John is immersed in the study of chaos theory – a subject Hope can’t even pretend to understand but she does understand John’s passion for it. Gradually though, as John repeatedly fails to achieve his own goal to make a unique contribution to the subject, his mental health begins to show the strain. Jumping from one mathematical discipline to another, alternating between heavy drinking and total abstention, John’s behaviour becomes progressively more erratic and their marriage comes under ever greater strain.

The reader knows from the second strand, at Grosso Arvore, that the marriage ended, but doesn’t know how or what was the final straw until towards the end of the book. But we see Hope, still young, now researching chimp behaviour in Africa. Her task is to observe a small group of chimps who have broken away from the main group. Eugene Mallabar is about to publish what will be his magnum opus – the last word on chimpanzees – and his reputation is what brings in the grants and donations that make the research possible. But Hope begins to see behaviour in her chimp group that doesn’t tie in with Mallabar’s research. At first, she tells him about this but he dismisses her – he doesn’t want his research threatened. So she begins to conduct her own research and is increasingly disturbed by what she discovers.

William Boyd

Hope sees Usman whenever she goes to the nearby town for supplies for the project. But on one trip, she and a colleague are taken captive by a group of rebels. Although this is a fairly small part of the overall story, it’s one of the most powerful – Boyd gives a compelling picture of the chaos of this kind of indeterminate warfare which is so commonplace on the African continent.

This is a book that could easily be read on two levels. The ideas in it about scientific ambition and evolution may not be particularly original, but they are very well presented, and Boyd even manages to make the maths discussions comprehensible and interesting, with something to say about the wider world. But put all the ideas and themes to one side, and the book becomes a simple but compelling story of Hope’s life. She is an exceptionally well drawn character, a strong, intelligent, independent woman, self-reliant sometimes to the point of coldness, but I found it easy to empathise with her nonetheless.

While I found the stories of Hope’s marriage and her later relationship with Usman absorbing and emotionally credible, what made the book stand out for me was the story of the chimp research in Grosso Arvore. For those particularly sensitive to animal stories, I will say that Boyd pulls no punches – he shows us nature in all its gore, sometimes graphically. But this is all animal to animal interaction – there is no suggestion of human cruelty towards the chimps – and I therefore found it quite bearable, like watching a wildlife documentary. Hope is professional in her approach so that the chimps are never anthropomorphised, but clear parallels are drawn between the behaviour of the chimps and the war going on in the human world. And because the chimps are such close relatives to humans, they gradually develop personalities of their own that we care about as much as if they were human. The other aspect of the chimp story is Mallabar’s reaction to the threat to his life’s work, and I found this equally well executed and believable.

Harriet Walter

For me, this is Boyd at his best. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? I listened to it on audio, perfectly narrated by Harriet Walter. I found it took me ages to get through (mainly because I tend to listen while cooking and eating, and frankly a lot of the chimp stuff just wasn’t suited to that activity!) but I remained totally absorbed in each strand, never having that irritating feeling of wishing he would hurry up and get back to the other storyline. It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully. Highly recommended.

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Audible UK Link
Audible US Link