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 Tennyson's
famous description of Nature as "red in tooth and claw." The reader
of this book will not soon forget it.