William Boyd won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his mesmerizing novel Brazzaville Beach.
Narrator Hope Clearwater sets out to explain why she is living on the edge of Africa, in a dead-end scrap of a village called Brazzaville Beach. Her story is two-fold: what happened to her marriage in England that drove her to Africa in the first place, and what happened at the chimpanzee research preserve afterward.
Hope had married a math genius, and then wrestled with jealousy of his monomania when her own career took time to get traction. The story has a classic X-shaped structure, with her life and career improving while her husband's falls apart.
The second story about the chimpanzees is more exciting and less theoretical. Hope discovers a violent division in the chimpanzee tribe, but must fight her boss – a world authority on chimpanzee behavior – to expose the truth. The resolution is a little subdued given the action leading up to it, but it is still an absorbing tale.
Both stories are fascinating, although they never really tie together thematically. Other than both involving science and both leading to Hope's further independence, there isn't a lot of connection between the two narratives. But Boyd knows how to tell a story and this novel is no exception. Worth the read.
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I read this as one of my James Tait Black Memorial Prize picks for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, British Version, Challenge. William Boyd is one of my favorites.