Picks and Pans Review: Brazzaville Beach
by William Boyd
What an engaging and yet intellectually challenging novel this is. The author, gifted as both storyteller and prose manipulator, takes as his inspiration Socrates' edict "The unexamined life is not worth living." Yet, in having his likable heroine examine her life, Boyd shows the damage wrought if a life is looked at too closely and one can't live with what one finds.
Boyd, born in Ghana and now a Londoner, has set his tale in Africa, as he did two excellent earlier novels, A Good Man in Africa and An Ice Cream War. His protagonist is a young academic, Hope Clearwater. Hoping to overcome a tragic marriage, she has gone to the Congo to work at a chimpanzee research camp. "I fled to Africa to escape what happened in England and then, as the continent will, it embroiled me further," she says.
Once Hope starts her chimpanzee research—clearly, Jane Goodall was the model here—she finds that the previously pacific chimps have started killing and eating each other. Hope becomes so caught up in the chimpanzee wars, she fails to notice until too late how close to her the battles of a human civil war have come.
Boyd intercuts Hope's African odyssey with the story of her earlier courtship and then marriage to a troubled mathematician, John Clearwater, who is studying turbulence. The author effectively uses John's obsessive mathematical quests and Hope's chimp research as metaphors for the human need to do the impossible, to pin down and quantify life. As one character puts it, "The pursuit of knowledge is the road to hell."
To risk the obvious, Brazzaville Beach is the beach book this summer for readers seeking a bang-up adventure novel with substantial phrenic heft. (Morrow, $21)
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