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3.7 out of 5 stars
Brazzaville Beach
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on June 18, 2001
Hope Clearwater sits on Brazzaville Beach, contemplates her past, and narrates the events of this novel. One strain of the story concerns her failed marriage to a mathematician whose unquenched thirst for revolutionary discoveries and their attendant fame drove him to madness. The second strain concerns the animal research that Hope had fled to Africa to participate in. Grosso Arvore Research Center is run by the renowned chimpanzee expert Eugene Mallabar, who was just putting the finishing touches on his master work, describing the peaceful ways of our close animal relatives, when Hope's own observations seemed to indicate that all was not quite as idyllic as had previously been supposed among these primates. But the evidence of aggression that she finds between two competing colonies of chimps threatens the carefully constructed image that Mallabar has built up over the years, and, most importantly, threatens to make the animals less attractive to charitable organizations which fund the project. Meanwhile, thrumming in the background is a guerilla war which threatens to swamp this African nation at any moment.
William Boyd takes these various threads and weaves them together, along with a variety of brief comments on scientific and mathematical ideas and issues, into an exciting and intellectually compelling novel. With its Edenic setting and themes of Man's search for knowledge--and the madness the search can bring--the book taps into our primordial myths and some of the core questions of our existence. If it sometimes seems to be almost too consciously striving to be a serious novel of ideas, that ambition is justified, if not always realized, and the philosophical failures are more than offset by the good old-fashioned African adventure story that unfolds simultaneously.
The shelves fairly groan beneath the weight of books warning that when a little of the veneer of civilization gets stripped away in the jungle, Man must face the fact that he has a dark heart. And there are elements of that here, particularly in the way that Mallabar treats Hope and her discovery, but Boyd has much more to say besides just this. Perhaps the most exciting message of the book lies in the contrarian stance it takes to the modern age's tendency to romanticize Nature. It is always well to recall Thomas Hobbes's famous description of Nature as "red in tooth and claw." The reader of this book will not soon forget it.
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on June 19, 2001
Upon seeing all the excellent reviews on I decided to give William Boyd and his 'Brazzaville Beach' a try. I'd like to thank all these reviewers for informing me about such a wonderful book. Why isn't 'Brazzaville Beach' better known?
'Brazzaville Beach' is a story about a young British woman studying primate behaviour in Africa. William Boyd deftly weaves the story by including flashbacks of her life before Africa (and her failed marriage in England), and by describing the present state of the war-torn African country where she resides. When the primates (chimps) she studies start behaving unusually her life, and those of her fellow researchers, turns upside-down, and she starts questioning the behavior of herself and mankind in general.
In addition to being a mature, absorbing story, 'Brazzaville Beach' is written with intelligence. The characterizations are well-drawn without be overly elaborate. The story is thought-provoking without being too preachy. I should think secondary schools and universities should include 'Brazzaville Beach' in their curricula as part of a social sciences program. It is *that* good.
Bottom line: simply terrific. Don't hesitate from putting it on your 'must read' list.
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on September 27, 2001
I adored this book from start to finish. Hope Clearwater is in worn-torn Africa observing chimpanzee behavior when she notices a startling trend that conflicts with everything her boss and mentor believes. Her integrity - and perhaps much more - is threatened when everyone at the camp seems to turn against her. Interwoven with flashbacks to her previous life in England with her bizarre but brilliant mathematician husband and the story of her Egyptian mercenary lover who flies a Mig for one side of the civil war, the story draws powerful parallels between the two primate societies, human and chimp.
How can a novel that discusses the difference between turbulence and topology in mathematics be a page turner? You'll have to read this book to believe it. Other than the name of Hope Clearwater - a bit too much in this otherwise subtle tale - Boyd writes deftly and passionately, sometimes with horrifying precision as he describes what is happening among the chimps.
This suspenseful and intelligent novel deserves a wide readership. I only wish I had learned of it sooner!
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on May 13, 1999
Once again, Boyd draws the reader into a world of seemingly disperate topics (in this case: chimpanzee behavoir, mathematics, botany, the nature of love and mental illness) and weaves the material together in captivating fashion through impecible reasearch and the gift of pure storytelling. I was impressed at how convinincingly he presented the passion with which scientists approach their work, from the excitement/anticipation of discovery to the often monotonous and meloncholy process of experimentation. While less entertaining (and humourous) than his "Blue Afternoon, it's still a very worthwhile read.
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on June 24, 2012
What a strange book with rather eccentric characters, and slightly interesting chimpanzees. The story constantly jumped back and forth making it confusing and annoying. I didn't care for any of the odd individuals and found they were all too depressing. Having just read the author's superb book 'Ordinary Thunderstorms' I was quite disappointed with Brazzaville Beach.
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on August 22, 2000
"Brazzaville Beach" is a very well constructed novel weaving together two stories from the life of Hope, the heroine: in Africa, her work at a chimpanzee research center in a country in the midst of a civil war, where she makes a discovery that is "inconvenient" for the center's alpha male director; and in England, her doomed marriage to a brilliant but frustrated mathematician. There's lots in this book: love, sex, ego, war. Boyd very effectively portrays both the sciences and the scientists of primate research and advanced mathematics, as Hope learns what humans and chimpanzees have in common.
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on June 30, 2000
This is an absolutely stunning book in terms of Hope Clearwater's character and the events that unfold as the book progresses.
Evocative of the senses and smells that hit one in Africa, the character development of Hope unfolds into a compelling drama based on her relationship with her increasingly insane mathematician husband(?) and her relationship with the chimpanzees she is studying.
The book conveys a very clear message about the harsher and more sinister side to man's character, drawing strong parallels between the chimpanzee's behaviour and that between the scientists in the research camp where Hope is based.
The book has several strands to it and each a fully developed into a unified whole. Boyd's exploration into, and description of, chaos theory is excellent in terms of putting this across in non-technical terminology and a stroke of genius regarding how it fits into the story's development.
One of my top six novels
- Of Human Bondage - Birdsong - Charlotte Gray - Jude the Obscure - Coasting (Jonathan Raban) - The Misfit
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on January 7, 1998
A man who can write so WELL in the first person as a woman, deserves a great deal of credit. The opening 2 pages are brilliant, sardonic and hilarious. This maintains a permanent place in my personal "best of" library. Always recommended to friends looking for an interesting, exciting book. Could compare in some ways to A.S. Byatt in the plot segments around ferocious academic competition and intrigue.
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on November 17, 1999
I found this a fascinating book - intelligent, well written, well paced and with wonderful turns of phrase. But what was particularly remarkable was the weaving together of an extraordinary range of topics, emotions, flavors and moods. Mathematics, science, divergent cultures, the senselessness of human and primate violence, the tragedy of mental illness, the poisonous effects of greed and grasping - it's all there. I highly recommend it.
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on April 15, 2012
This book was extremely well written, taking the reader through a journey of Hope Clearwater's past and present. A mixture of the civil unrest of Africa, chimpanzees and the difficulty of her mathematician husband. This novel was captivating, I could not put it down ! I recommend this novel to anyone !
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