Sunday, 27 November 2011

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

I did not realise that Brazzaville Beach was a real place in the Congo until I heard it mentioned on the radio the other day. So much for my geographical knowledge. However, it is a slightly confusing title because the story is really set in Angola.

Few who have read Golding's other novels would fail to agree that he is a good writer. Indeed, Brazzaviile Beach, written in 1995, was nominated at the time for the James Tait prize. I can see why he is popular: his books are easy to read and appeal to both sexes. I too liked the book. Mostly. Although, sometimes it jarred, occasionally it disappointed.

The main character, Hope, leaves her floundering maths whiz husband and goes off to study chimpanzees in Angola. Soon, Hope discovers that the group of chimps she is studying show aggression. Her boss, Eugene, refuses to believe her theories or findings: funding for further research is dependent upon the publication of his book about the passive chimps.

The denouement of the novel comes when there is a murderous fight between the two chimpanzee groups in the study. This part of the story is most certainly based upon the findings of Jane Goodall, whose famous and expert research in Tanzania (circa 1965) showed that chimpanzees could be very aggressive, killing other chimpanzees if necessary to maintain their social group. And, generally, the theme of the novel is the parallel between how the chimpanzees and the researchers behave.

Allegory is played upon: apart from the fighting chimpanzees being an allegory for the war torn setting of Angola, so it is that Eugene's behaviour towards Hope is as unpleasant as that between the groups of chimps. Then there is the break up of Hope's marriage as an allegory for the crumbling politics of the region.

Obsession is another theme that runs through the novel: Hope is obsessed with her research, to such an extent that she leaves her husband for months to pursue it. Her husband is so obsessed with his mathematical theories that he goes crazy; her boss so obsessed with his theories that it leads to violence and his assistant is obsessed with him to such an extent that she abets his attempts to doctor research.

This is all very well, and the chapters about the chimpanzees (surprisingly for a person like myself not naturally drawn to chimpanzees) was interesting and very readable, but there were some annoying facets to the book. Some of our groupies did not like the way the book jumped between fist person and third person, which was used to differentiate the past and present. Nor did they enjoy the time-switch itself, back and forth between former married life with nutty professor husband in England and current chimp research.

This did not worry me in particular but I did agree that Hope's husband was a conceptual character and agreed that we could have done without the married bit altogether: it added nothing and did not hang together. We would all have preferred hubby's (nonetheless interesting) maths theories as a separate novel altogether.

However, we were all in complete agreement that the most unconvincing part of an otherwise entertaining read was the characterization of the heroine, Hope. Why on earth did Golding have to make the main character a woman? She was not only unbelievable as one (too masculine and unemotional) but difficult to like. Her love for her husband and her lover did not ring true and her self-sufficiency and obsessions took a very male form.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Brazzaville Beach more than I expected and will read one of his novels again, whenever I happen across one.