Book Club: Brazzaville Beach

13 Oct

Brazzaville Beach

By William Boyd

My ex-boyfriend chatted me up on Twitter after we had a drunken discussion about Roxy Music. But the reason he had followed me, months before, was an appreciation of me using CAUC, the pleasingly sweary acronym from William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. I think, at the time, I was describing Ken Livingston.

I’ve read a few more of Boyd’s books since Any Human Heart and all of them have been excellent. He has such a distinctive style but I’m always in awe of how well Boyd seems to get into character to write his novels, especially when the narrator is a woman. Not that it’s particularly hard to pretend to be a woman. You just talk about periods and kittens and how much you wish you had Kate Middleton’s hair. But amazingly, Boyd manages not to just do this and it’s brilliant. Though I suppose that as Brazzaville Beach, the book I’ve just finished, was published in 1990, pre-KMid, he never had that easy option anyway.

Brazzaville Beach is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. Don’t get me wrong, it is WONDERFUL, but also kept making me feel a bit off kilter. It’s quite hard to explain without giving too much away, and I think the element of surprise works really well with this novel, but I found it shocking in the way American Psycho was supposed to be but somehow isn’t.

The book starts on the coast of Africa, but moves between London and Dorset.  It would be nice to say that Boyd gives you a real feeling for a place in its description but I think it’s less that he sets the scene or makes it easy for you to imagine and more that you just take it for granted that wherever he says something is set it just is and I assume that everything is an accurate description.  Also, as he was born in Ghana and spent his early years there and in Nigeria, I presume his description of Africa is probably better than mine (“It’s hot. There are giraffes. The Lion King theme.”).

Hope Clearwater is a scientist working at the Grosso Arvore Reseach Centre studying chimpanzees. The story skips between Hope’s time there, her life afterwards and back to her marriage to mathematician John and its deterioration.  This can sometimes be an almighty pain in the arse when done badly but it works really well here.  The book is punctuated by little pieces on mathematical formula, which are incredibly interesting and work around the little slivers of random anecdotes of Hope’s life that go with them brilliantly.

The blurb on the back makes the book sound like a dark thriller, that there is something sinister behind the work of her boss, the famous scientist Eugene Mallabar. I think, personally, that that’s slightly misleading. I kept waiting for some big reveal, but it never really came.  I don’t mean that to be negative about the book at all, I think it’s actually much more subtle and thoughtful than that. All in all, the whole thing seems to be a take on the human condition, which makes it sound so up it’s own arse, but I can safely say it isn’t. This is definitely a book I would recommend to everyone, unless they have a weak stomach and/or a vommy hangover.

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3 Responses to “Book Club: Brazzaville Beach”

  1. mattdupuy October 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    I really like this one, too. African brushfire wars are always a.) absolutely horrible and b.) infinitely interesting, due to the number of shady characters and lunatics involved, the former usually on the sidelines and the latter usually front and centre. I remember a particularly telling section where someone encounters an abandoned gun emplacement and realises that the shells that are stacked all around it are completely the wrong size for it, and they wonder how much the European arms dealer responsible got for securing them. The unspoken comparison between the chimp colonies and the civil war is a bit near the knuckle (I have no doubt that you couldn’t get away with that now) but otherwise it’s a brilliant and strangely serene read.

    Also absolutely worth looking at is Boyd’s ‘An Ice Cream War’, which is based on true events in East Africa during WW1. It was reading that which got me to ‘Brazzaville Beach’, and it is equally good, if not better.

    • Sarah Duggers October 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

      And there, in one fell swoop, you show that you are far better at this than me.

      • mattdupuy October 14, 2012 at 10:38 am #

        Not really. I just have a really good memory for literary passages about guns.

        I really do recommend ‘An Ice Cream War’, though. It has an excellent comedy Scotsman in it.

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