Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

A bit too disconnected for me

This book started promisingly in the African jungle, then carried on with several flashbacks in the UK interspersed with further live action in Africa … and kind of lost me along the way. I think my problem was that I had trouble joining up the dots in the story.

The heroine’s adventures with the chimps, together with the one she faces later on in the novel didn’t connect in any meaningful way for me with her previous life in England, with her mathematician husband. And I find it difficult to believe in such a compartmentalised life story as that. It may be true-to-life, why not, but I didn’t find it plausible reading.

Yes, I found some echoes of the civil war near where the chimps were being observed reflected in the animals’ behaviour. And yes, maybe Hope Clearwater (the heroine, with now as I come to write it out, a heavily allusive – or do I mean allegorical – name) chooses her mates among the more lonely and/or weird of the male species, “at home” and “abroad” as the English still rather quaintly say. But that’s about it, and even then, I might just be trying to read things that simply aren’t there. So it sort of bothered me that my reaction when I was whisked to London or back to a dusty African track was “Oh? Back here now then? Oh well, OK then.” rather than the action flowing easily across time and space. After all, the flashback is heavily used in fiction but it usually serves a purpose.

A word about the mad mathematician husband. (He’s not obviously mad to start with, he slowly gets worse). I happen to work in a place stuffed with among the best mathematicians in the world. And I would be the first to admit that a) very few of them strike you as 100% ordinary or “normal”, whatever that state might be and b) some do fit somewhere along the imbalanced/mentally ill spectrum. Perhaps William Boyd simply rode the bandwagon of the film “A Beautiful Mind”, which portrays aspects of John Nash’s life, in crafting his John Clearwater. I think he could have more credibly portrayed what would have been in my view a far more “typical” mathematician: a person who, in addition to possessing prodigious reasoning ability, often combined with music and/or linguistic skills, presents a certain distance from matters other mortals consider important; oh,  and demonstrates a total lack of dress sense, which is usually simply explained by the fact that clothes come under the “not important” heading. I can certainly believe that would be enough to challenge any relationship, real or literary, no need to make the poor guy stark ravers.

All in all, a “I hoped for better things” book for me. I did read it all, enjoyed parts of it, but was left somewhat confused.

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