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Brazzaville Beach

3.90  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,265 Ratings  ·  255 Reviews
Young, alone, and far from her family in Britain, Hope Clearwater contemplates the extraordinary events that left her washed up like driftwood on Brazzaville Beach. It is here, on the distant, lonely outskirts of Africa, where she must come to terms with the perplexing and troubling circumstances of her recent past. For Hope is a survivor of the devastating cruelities of a ...more
Hardcover, 316 pages
Published June 1st 1991 by William Morrow & Co (first published 1990)
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I delighted in this book because it tells a compelling human story with a rich framework of ideas that appeal to me. The tale is of a woman, Hope Clearwater, reflecting back on her work and marriage in England to a mathematician and her work and life studying chimp behavior in the Republic of Congo, both of which ended in disaster. She is unable to move forward without making some sense out of the wisdom vs. stupidities in her role in the disasters. As quoted from Socrates in the epilogue and cl ...more
Oh my, this book is hard to explain.

First of all, it IS engaging. I didn't want to stop listening. It is full of information. It keeps you thinking, and it doesn't necessarily provide answers. Definitely four stars.

It starts and ends with the line "The unexamined life is not worth living." I guess you would have to classify this as a cerebral novel, but also the parts set in Africa are dramatic; one thing happens after another - a civil war and infanticide and aggression and cannibalism and mu
switterbug (Betsey)
Like his 2012 book, WAITING FOR SUNRISE, Boyd employed a complex structure in this 1990 novel about science and discord, both marital and professional. Structure and the sciences are the glue for connecting the themes and metaphors of his overall story, a device for annexing separate compartments of the narrative and cohering it into a whole. Once you let that be, or let it go, and stop worrying if you are comprehending all the pieces while reading it, you can enjoy this compelling piece of fict ...more
Dec 18, 2012 Jill rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Many years before Brazzaville Beach was ever published, William Blake published this well-known poem as part of his Songs of Experience: “Tyger, tyger burning bright/ In the forests of the night;/What immortal hand or eye/ Could flame thy fearful symmetry?” Blake, who was overwhelmed by the beauty and horrors of the natural world, saw nature as a place for our own growth, in preparation for the beginning of our lives.

Why the longish preface about Blake? Brazzaville Beach is, to some degree, abou
Alan Wells
Jul 18, 2011 Alan Wells rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A touching and wrenching tale of a woman's experiences in her personal life and career, with a backstory set in Africa. Hope Clearwater faces many challenges with her work as a scientist - much of the time observing chimpanzees near a remote, academic camp in Africa, as well as the emotional upheavals in her marriage to an eccentric mathematician. With a wide variety of settings, quirkiness, and unsettling events, the reader is given a unique glimpse into Hope's unfailingly human reactions to th ...more
May 13, 2013 Chris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
Brazzaville Beach tells the stories of Hope Clearwater. It covers two periods, telling them in parallel although one follows the other chronologically. Each period comes to a dramatic conclusion. The book builds to deliver both conclusions as close together as the narrative allows. There are themes that recur in Hope's experiences. There is anger, violence, madness, conspiracy. There is violence instigated by academics, and tenderness provided by soldiers.

So far I've described a complex structur
Aug 25, 2011 Jules rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A thought-provoking and well-paced read that ponders what separates humans from animals -- our capacity for compassion and for cruelty -- and questions whether some of the boundaries are perhaps blurrier than we'd expect.

Boyd has a talent for immersing the reader in an exotic or unfamiliar topic in his books, and I found myself completely absorbed by the details of Hope's work with the chimpanzees (and only a bit less so with John's work on mathematics). The structure of the book, broken into lo
Nigel Bird
Jun 27, 2013 Nigel Bird rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brazzaville Beach is a tremendous novel.
Right from the beginning it has the feel of something rather unusual and for me there was a definite double-take moment when I realised I’d found my place.
It’s centred around 2 main aspects of Hope Clearwater’s life, her time with her husband in the UK and her time without in Africa.
The drive of the plot centres around Hope’s work observing chimpanzees in the world’s leading scientific project on the subject of the animals. She’s cottoned on to the fact th
Apr 09, 2012 TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who likes stories set in Africa
Hope Clearwater, the protagonist of William Boyd’s novel, Brazzaville Beach is a young English ethologist who’s come to the Grosso Arvore Research Center in central Africa to make a study of chimpanzees and to forget her broken marriage to a brilliant mathematician back home. In this engrossing book, Boyd very deftly braids three story strands: Hope’s present day life on Brazzaville Beach; Hope’s former life in England with her husband John; and Hope’s recent experiences at Grosso Arvore, and he ...more
Cailin Deery
Nov 10, 2013 Cailin Deery rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've been meaning to read Boyd for awhile now and this one presented a tenuous link to King Leopold's Ghost: the beach gets its name from one of Henry Morton Stanley's contemporaries (de Brazza) and its main narrative is set in a chimpanzee research preserve within the Congolese jungle. More of a segue than a link, and any similarities end there.

The story opens in Brazzaville where the main character, Hope Clearwater, is working as an ethologist studying primate behaviour. During her time obser
Jul 11, 2009 Hanny rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
If this book hadn't been recommended by a friend who loved it, I probably wouldn't have read the whole book. I had a difficult time getting into the story, but I stuck with it and was glad I did. The main character of the book is Hope Clearwater, an English woman, who is studying the behavior of chimpanezes in Africa.
Her story is told by moving back and forth from past to present, which I thought was very well done by the talented Mr. Boyd. The subject matter of the brutality of the animals was
Dec 11, 2008 Iz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: awards-or-prizes
I couldn't put this book down. I connected on a weird level, maybe because I myself worked with monkeys in Africa, maybe because I see myself turning into Hope Clearwater in a couple of years, with all her scientific-minded cynicism, even though the writing style wasn't my favourite. I didn't mind the constant flip between first and third person narration. I found the part of the story before she goes to Africa (her husband's madness) incredibly boring, but I loved how the story shows that it th ...more
Despite its heading trappings, I couldn't say I was moved by the novel and its examination of nature and science, its flourish of systems and the inexplicable margins where our emotions have left us stranded.

My wife was listening to RadioLab and I mentioned this novel. We discused territory and trespass. The consequences explored in the novel are grim. There's some terror in the feral.
Dillwynia Peter
Apr 02, 2014 Dillwynia Peter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the 2nd book I have read in the past 12 months that use the rebellion and tensions associated with the Republic of the Congo (the other being The Poisonwood Bible) Both are written by Caucasians and both spent part of their childhoods in Africa. I think this is part of the success of both these books for me.

Running concurrently is the story of Hope's marriage and her time as a behavioural scientist on chimpaneze. As a result of the 1st person narrative, we don't fully understand, until t
This is enjoyable light literary fiction about Hope Clearwater, a chimpanzee researcher in civil war torn Africa. Whilst relaxing on Brazzaville Beach, watching the waves crash randomly on the sand, Hope reminisces about her recent rather dramatic history. The story switches back and forth between her study of the apes with its attendant scientific disputes among colleagues and her previous life when married to a brilliant but very troubled mathematician back in England. The civil war is always ...more
Mar 15, 2010 Laurie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
I just finished this and am not totally sure what to think. I thought it was really well written and the characters and setting were all interesting. The book travels through three time periods in the main character's life and I thought this was really well done. Also, as a primatologist, I was impressed with the author's portrayal of primatology. He must have done some serious research!

Here's why I am not sure what to think about the book in the end, though. I felt like there is some deeper me
Mar 26, 2013 Caitlin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was excellent. Three stories from one woman's life, all to do with the men she had met and their reactions to the realisation that they were fallible. He looks at different facets of science and whether it is possible to find the ultimate proof of a theory, or whether the search for that proof will eventually destroy you. Brilliantly written, both a page turner and a serious examination of the ideas above. To top it off, I always come away from William Boyd wanting to visit Africa, and see ...more
May 29, 2016 Ron rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is about the competitiveness of scientific study, about the preposterousness of African civil wars, about chimpanzees in the wild, about the struggles in a marriage between two people who really do not understand each other, or even try, about a young woman trying to find satisfying work and satisfying relationships. Hope observes chimp behavior (fighting and killing other chimps) that undercut the main thesis (chimps are peaceful social animals) of her boss, who has studied chimps for decade ...more
Mar 22, 2016 Lesley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely fantastic book. I have never read anything like it. A compelling and complex tale of Hope Clearwater, a young scientist whose marriage falls apart in London, and who then encounters sinister goings-on amongst chimpanzees in a war-torn African state.
I hate maths. I am totally hopeless at maths, but I was absorbed and fascinated by Hope's attempts to make sense of her life by using mathematical equations. In particular, the types of catastrophe there are, the origin of algebra, and her
D.J. Cockburn
When a couple of people recommend a book to me, I try to find a copy. That was what put me on to Brazzaville Beach. It tells the story of Hope Clearwater, and ecologist who goes from studying bedrizzled English hedgerows to following chimpanzees in a fictitious African country.
The central conceit of the novel is that the behaviour of Hope's chimpanzees reflects the social and sexual behaviour of the people researching them, and the conflicts between groups of chimpanzees reflects the Angola-like
Mar 14, 2014 Al rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Four stars plus. The story alone is four stars, but Mr. Boyd finds ways for his stories to carry heavier freight. In this case, his female protagonist, Hope Clearwater, is first seen working as an observer in a chimpanzee colony in Africa. In the parallel (earlier) story line, she is meeting, marrying and ultimately splitting up with a mathematician obsessed by his work on turbulence theory. Ms. Clearwater is an analytical, patient, careful scientist. In Mr. Boyd's hands, her experiences are fa ...more
Russell Bittner
Dec 28, 2014 Russell Bittner rated it really liked it
One of the many things I can say about William Boyd’s writing – and Brazzaville Beach – is my sixth foray into ‘Boyd’s Woods’ – is that there are always little gems to be mined, hunted, maybe even bagged. “(T)he last thing we ever learn about ourselves is our effect (on others),” on p. 102, is just such a gem.

I think it’s always risky to conjecture what a writer had in mind when (s)he set out to compose a work, but I’ll risk it here nonetheless. When, on p. 28, we first learn that humans and
Mandy Radley
Aug 01, 2014 Mandy Radley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If I'd have bought and read the synopsis of this book about a woman in war torn Africa researching chimpanzees I probably wouldn't have bothered to read any further. It was on our book club list and as I couldn't get it from the local library, downloaded it. I'm surprised to say I enjoyed it. The story alternates between Hope Clearwater's life in the UK with her mathematician husband who has a nervous beak down and commits himself to a psychiatric hospital and her work researching chimpanzees in ...more
May 09, 2014 Paula rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The most beautiful and brutal novel Ive read since Steinbeck - who seems pale and longwinded in comparison. Perhaps the most vivid, painstakingly perfect and seemingly effortless writing that Ive ever encountered. I dont hand out stars lightly, yet in comparison to hundreds of other books I've rated, Boyd earned 7 stars. I am staggered and am unable to start another work of fiction. There is a clarity and intensity I find unmatched in fiction of the last century. It is not the best plot ive enco ...more
Richard Moss
Sep 09, 2015 Richard Moss rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
I love William Boyd's books.

In fact I'm tempted to leave my review there, as I am not sure what analysis is needed, but the gaping white space on the screen seems to need filling.

Brazzaville Beach is one of his earlier novels, and displays all his skills for plot and characterisation.

But it is structurally daring too, interweaving three different time periods and styles of writing.

I am a man so perhaps it's hard for me to judge, but for a male author, he also does seem capable of creating convin
Apr 12, 2014 Scilla rated it liked it
The story begins with Hope Clearwater studying the chimpanzees at Grosso Arvore, a research camp in the middle of a small African country which is having a revolution. It then goes back to when she is in graduate school when she decided she had to get to know John Clearwater, a mathematics research fellow that people were talking about. She finally gets a chance to introduce herself and a short romance followed by marriage ensues. The marriage begins having problems which we hear about off and o ...more
Feb 28, 2014 Belinda rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
Why did I need to know that? What is the message the author is trying to convey? I never could answer those questions, and neither could my book club. Hope is almost compassionless and I couldn't relate to her, or anyone else in the book. The jumping between time frames was disorienting. I truly don't understand all the rave reviews. I don't need to enjoy the content of a book to like it but there has to be something - a compelling story or interesting characters. I couldn't find anything to lik ...more
Mark Speed
One of Boyd's best novels, it draws clever parallels between human behaviour and that of our closest genetic cousins: chimpanzees. Part of it is set in an African country suffering from an internal conflict, and there are some larger-than-life characters around, and their antics are hugely enjoyable because they are so expertly drawn. Other parts of the narrative are set in the UK. The only disappointment is that one character chooses the same means of suicide as a character from An Ice-Cream Wa ...more
Lukasz Pruski
Jan 11, 2014 Lukasz Pruski rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
William Boyd's "Brazzaville Beach" has been exhaustively discussed and reviewed during the 23 years since it was published. It has served as book club fare probably thousands of times. Everybody who has read it has an opinion on what the novel is about. Some say it is about scientists being only human. Others say it is about the similarities between chimpanzee and human behavior. One arrogant bozo, trying to ride the fashionable bandwagon, even posits the book is about "emancipation of women". B ...more
Jul 24, 2011 Hayes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting, different. Not at all what I was expecting, which in this case is a Good Thing.

RTF Never did review this, and now I can remember only that it was strange, in a good way, and that I liked it.
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Of Scottish descent, Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana on 7th March, 1952 and spent much of his early life there and in Nigeria where his mother was a teacher and his father, a doctor. Boyd was in Nigeria during the Biafran War, the brutal secessionist conflict which ran from 1967 to 1970 and it had a profound effect on him.

At the age of nine years he attended Gordonstoun school, in Moray, Scotland an
More about William Boyd...

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“The last thing we learn about ourselves is our effect.” 13 likes
“I have teken refuge in the doctrine that advises one not to seek tranquility in certainty but in permanently suspended judgement.” 6 likes
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