Stephen Wall

  • Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 314 pp, £13.95, September 1990, ISBN 1 85619 026 9
  • A Bottle in the Smoke by A.N. Wilson
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 279 pp, £13.95, September 1990, ISBN 1 85619 019 6
  • Temples of Delight by Barbara Trapido
    Joseph, 318 pp, £13.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 7181 3467 2

In his new novel William Boyd returns to Africa, the scene of his first successes, but not to the west of A Good Man in Africa or the east of An Ice-Cream War. Brazzaville Beach goes for the centre – and appropriately so, since the questions it raises are more searching than before. They’re pursued with a narrative fluency and clarity of design that rewards and deserves attention.

In a beach house on the Congolese coast a woman is taking to heart Socrates’s remark (which is also the novel’s epigraph) that the unexamined life is not worth living. She’s called Hope Clearwater, but her life hasn’t exactly been plain sailing. Clearwater is actually her married name, and it has in the end a grim application to the fate of her husband, a mathematician; she herself has a doctorate in life sciences, and is therefore a trained observer and interpreter of nature. Back in England, during the time of her marriage, she worked on the dating of hedgerows and coppices (each species represents a hundred years, roughly speaking). It doesn’t sound very exciting, but William Boyd knows that almost any research has its own fascination, once you understand how its methods relate to its objectives. Both the present book and its predecessor The New Confessions are themselves well researched and as a result superior to Boyd’s comic vein – as in Stars and Bars – where the invention is coarse and forced by comparison.

In Africa, Hope joins the team on the Grosso Arvore Research Centre directed by the celebrated primatologist Eugene Mallabar. After over twenty years in the field he knows more about the society of wild chimpanzees than anyone else. His books – The Peaceful Primate, Primate’s Progress – are famous, and the final summa of his great work is in proof. Nevertheless, keeping the project going has been difficult. Grosso Arvore is deep in the interior and communications have been hampered by protracted civil war. Chimpanzees are genetically closer to man than any other species; Angolans call them ‘the mockmen’. What Hope discovers is that their society – watched over so benignly by Mallabar for so long – is also capable of internecine violence and gratuitous cruelty. A group of chimps secede from the main tribe and are hunted down by those they have left. In a series of scenes which are the more powerful for not being over-written Hope sees for herself the terrible things the creatures are capable of. The trouble is that Mallabar won’t believe it – in more than one way he can’t afford to – and her other colleagues take their cue from him. Hope feels driven to break away too, only to have her Land Rover commandeered by some guerrillas on the run from the federal army. Her growing sense of panic and isolation as a result of the discoveries no one else wants to accept gives the narrative plenty of momentum.

However, the obvious parallel between the war of the chimps and human conflict takes second place to another fearful symmetry – that between Hope’s African life and her English one. Chronologically, the latter precedes the former, but William Boyd adroitly interleaves and intercuts the two stories so that the juxtaposition makes them seem concurrent. The effect is to enhance the reader’s wish to reach the resolution in each case, so that he can fully understand their interdependence.

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