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Book Review : Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

Sunday, 3 May 2009

This is an enjoyable book - engrossing even - but there are some problems with it.

It weaves together three story lines - or, in fact, three episodes from the same story : the life of one Hope Clearwater. We are shown her fresh out of university, when she marries mathematician John Clearwater and works as a landscape ecologist in England. Simultaneously, and taking up the bulk of the story, we have an older Hope, now no longer with John, working as a chimpanzee anthropologist in Africa. Finally we have the oldest Hope, the one that directly speaks to the reader, living alone on the African beach of the title, looking back at the events of her life.

The book is certainly well-written. The plots draw you in. Characters are believable and three-dimensional. Four-dimensional, even, as they certainly change over time too. The book is full of interesting details and asides, mainly about mathematics and anthropology. It is interesting, as a writer, to note how effective it is to interweave three stories like this. How the reader is able to easily cope with - enjoy even - what might appear to be a confusing stratagem. The texture of the story is greatly enriched by the approach. Tense and person are used skillfully to differentiate between the different Hopes. The youngest Hope, for example, is presented almost as a different person, a stranger, so these episodes are written in the third-person, past tense. The "chimpanzee" Hope, however, is written in the first person as she is effectively the "current" one. It's an effective approach.

At the same time there is a certain hollowness to the book, a sense of nothing really being illuminated or achieved. Boyd uses both mathematics and anthropology to reflect, comment upon, the events in Hope’s life. John, for example, becomes engrossed in studying the mathematics of turbulence as his relationship with Hope, and his state of mind become, yes, more turbulent. The mathematical detail is frequently interesting but its literary effect is less clear. It often comes across as over-clever and not particularly illuminating. Similarly, we are presumably supposed to see parallels between the chimpanzees Hope studies and her own life. The apes split into two groups, who then engage in a brutal war with each other. This reflects, again, the conflict in Hope's life : the tensions among the anthropologists and a war taking place within the African country. Still, quite what point is being made isn't always clear. The allusions don't go anywhere much.

For all that, it's an enjoyable read, and a recommended one.


  1. Sounds a bit hope-less...see what I did there?

    Doesn't sound like something I'd rush to pick up and read though. Where are the dragons for a start?

    Do you think they got carried away with drawing paralells then? Certainly seems that way.

    Anyway, nice summary!

  2. Yes, there wasn't a single dragon, zombie or alien in the entire book if you can believe such a thing!


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