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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.
GRADE : A