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Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

When I found out that it had monkeys in it, I thought I was going to hate this book. I really, really don’t like monkeys. I mean, the little fruit-eating ones are sort of cute, but chimps and gorillas and orangutans and what not are just not my scene. I think it’s because they’re eerie simulacra of human beings and I just can’t take it. Makes my stomach upset. And Brazzaville Beach revolves around monkeys, specifically two groups of chimpanzees living in the rainforests of an unnamed/fictional African country in the 1980s and the human beings who observe them.

Our main character is Hope Clearwater, an English woman in her twenties who has come to Grosso Arvore, a research facility in the African jungle dedicated to the study of chimpanzees, after the disastrous end of her marriage to brilliant mathematician John Clearwater. In Brazzaville Beach, author William Boyd deftly braids together three narrative threads: Hope’s present-day life on Brazzaville Beach; Hope’s past life in England with John; and her experiences at Grosso Arvore, the bridge between those two stories.

Hope’s experiences in Grosso Arvore start innocently enough, but quickly divert into thriller territory when Eugene Mallabar, the director of Grosso Arvore, gives her the gaslight treatment after she sees chimpanzees—up until this point considered peaceful and gentle creatures—engaging in infanticide, cannibalism, torture and murder in the midst of territorial wars. Mallabar works effortlessly to make Hope doubt her own experiences and scare her off of telling anybody else about the chimpanzees’ frightening behaviors.

Meanwhile, Hope reflects on her marriage and life in England. Her husband, John, was an ambitious mathematician, hungry for discovery and fame. Though Hope had very few goals of her own, she was able to find surprisingly satisfactory work mapping hedgerows on an estate in Dorset, having gotten her Ph.D. in botany. But as she began to take more and more pleasure in her work, John became increasingly frantic, terrified that someone else will make the discoveries he is desperate to make and put his name on. John’s mental breakdown and the gradual decline of their marriage as a result is a mystery in and of itself, as the reader begins to wonder how Hope came to live at Grosso Arvore without her husband.

Although I loved the parts in England, especially the short, italicized explanations of mathematical concepts and their application to human experience, the most fascinating bits of Brazzaville Beach were the chimpanzee wars. I didn’t know this before I read the book, but apparently Hope’s experiences are somewhat predicated on those of celebrity primatologist Jane Goodall, who made similar discoveries regarding the calculating, aggressive nature of chimpanzees, challenging the previously held notion that they were peaceful vegetarians.

Much is made of the fact that chimpanzees supposedly share 97% of their DNA in common with human beings, and the behavior of humans and chimpanzees in the book (there is a civil war going on in the fictional African country where Grosso Arvore is set) is compared and contrasted over and over again. Except for a small detour toward the end of the book where Hope and one of her colleagues are kidnapped by a roving band of boy soldiers and their volleyball coach Dr. Amilcar (don’t ask), the book does its work deftly and engagingly and I highly recommend it.

One small note about this novel: I read it for book club, and because it’s a little bit older (published in 1990) it’s gone through several packaging incarnations. Thus, some of our copies had different covers. Mine was the one up at the very top—stereotypically African design, not much more to it. Then there’s the very literary version to the right, and THEN there’s the Harlequin romance version below--God, I wish the photo was bigger so you could get the full effect. (There are other versions, but these are the three we had at book club.) And, as you might expect, the way a book is packaged affects how you read it. Those of us who had trade paperbacks with reasonably literary covers read it as a literary novel; our friend with the mass-market edition, not so much. She read it as a trashy romance, and liked it much less as a result. So. For what it’s worth, the cover matters.

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