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A tale of two stories


William Morrow, $21

Reviewed by Pauline Mayer

"I live on Brazzaville Beach. Brazzaville Beach on the edge of Africa." Thus Hope Clearwater introduces herself in William Boyd's stunning new novel.

As for how this attractive young Englishwoman ended up in so remote a spot: "I am here because two sets of strange and extraordinary events happened to meOne in England, first, and then one in Africa. Two stories to tell. I fled to Africa to escape what happened in England and then, as the continent will, it embroiled me further."

Hope's English story is a taut domestic drama which ends in violence. Her African story is rife with violence, both animal and human. It involves jealousy, betrayal, kidnapping, civil war _ all the trappings of a great adventure yarn.

Boyd has proved himself a natural storyteller before, in such acclaimed works as A Good Man in Africa, An Ice-Cream War, and New Confessions. Nothing I've read of his is quite as riveting as this, his latest novel.

Brazzaville Beach is doubly fascinating because Boyd eschews chronological order and chooses to unwind Hope's English and African stories simultaneously, alternating between the two, with the English tale told in the third person, and the African adventure told by Hope herself.

The two stories are both separated and linked by Hope's commentary from Brazzaville Beach. The result is a daring structural tour de force, and a double-whammy of suspense.

The English story starts with Hope's marriage to mathematical genius John Clearwater, a fellow researcher at Oxford. Hope, with advanced degrees in botany and ethology, has accepted an undemanding job dating hedgerows. She is fascinated by John's demanding scholarship and his intense devotion to it.

Hope soon discovers that, in all his rarefied research, John never quite finds the epiphanous answers for which he searches. We watch, with fascination and total conviction, his frustration, and his gradual descent into madness.

The psychological drama in England builds to its traumatic climax. The result is that Hope, unencumbered except by memories, arrives in Central Africa to study chimpanzee behavior with the famous primatologist, Eugene Mallabar.

At Eugene's Grosso Avore Research Center, different traumas await Hope. She discovers proof of murder and cannibalism among an outlaw chimpanzee group _ violent behavior patterns which contradict all the published research of her renowned boss. Eugene tries to discredit Hope's theories, and Hope herself. Hope fights back, but before the conflict can be resolved she is kidnapped by one of the warring factions in this strife-torn African nation.

Her apologetic captor is an endearing European-educated doctor, leading a handful of youths with tribal scars. Their sweatshirts are inscribed "Atomique Bourn," which turns out to be the name of their volleyball team. Boyd specializes in such idiosyncratic touches.

All Boyd's characters are clearly defined: academics and family members in England, bickering scientists in Africa, the revolutionaries, the eccentric Egyptian pilot Hope has taken as her lover in Africa. Even the chimpanzees have personalities.

In a series of ironic twists of fate, Hope loses her kidnappers, loses her Egyptian lover and eventually loses her job with Eugene Mallabar.

When she makes her way back to the Research Center after her rescue, she finds that Eugene has appropriated all her research. He plans to publish as his own the very discoveries she brought to him and which he at first tried to discredit. This leads Hope to one final, violent confrontation with the renegade chimpanzees before she ends up in Brazzaville Beach to confront her past and her future.

Although she endures marital tragedy, professional betrayal and real physical danger, Hope comes across not as a victim but rather as a charming, droll, and gallant winner _ the altogether splendid heroine of an altogether splendid entertainment.

Pauline Mayer is a writer who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif.