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Praised as "brilliant" and "stunningly magical" by the Washington Post Book World, Boyd's award-winning novel is a brutal exploration of the sexual politics of humans and chimpanzees, set in present-day Africa. A survivor of the wars between apes and men, primate researcher Hope Clearwater contemplates the events that led to the discovery that even seemingly benign creatures can kill for the sheer pleasure of it.
A Novel Chapter One
I never really warmed to Clovis - he was far too stupid to inspire real affection - but he always claimed a corner of my heart, largely, I suppose, because of the way he instinctively and unconsciously cupped his genitals whenever he was alarmed or nervous. It was rather endearing, I thought, and it showed a natural vulnerability, in strong contrast to his usual moods: raffish arrogance or total and single-minded self-absorption. In fact, he was self-absorbed now as he sat grandly at ease, frowning, pursing and unpursing his lipscompletely ignoring me-and from time to time sniffing absentmindedly at the tip of a forefinger. He had been similarly occupied for upwards of an hour now and whatever he had stuck his finger into earlier that day had obviously been fairly potent, not to say narcotic and ineradicable. Knowing Clovis as I did, I suspected he could maintain this inertia for ages. I looked at my watch. If I went back now it might mean talking to that little swine Hauser.... I debated the pros and cons: spend the remaining hour I had left to me here with Clovis or risk enduring Hauser's cynical gossip, all silky insinuation and covert bitchery?
Should I tell you about Hauser now, I wonder? No, perhaps not; Hauser and the others will engage us as we meet them. They can wait a while; let us return to Clovis.
I changed my position, uncrossed my legs and stretched them out in front of me. A small ant seemed to have trapped itself under the strap of my brassiere and I spent a few awkward minutes trying vainly to locate it. Clovis impassively watched me remove first my shirt and then my bra. I found no insect but discovered its traces — a neat cluster of pink bites under my left armpit. I rubbed spit on them and replaced my clothes. As I did up the top button on my shirt, Clovis seemed to lose interest in me. He slapped his shoulder once, brusquely, and clambered into the mulemba tree beneath which he had been sitting, and with powerful easy movements he swung through the branches, leapt onto an adjacent tree and was away, lost to sight, heading northeast toward the hills of the escarpment.
I looked at my watch again and noted the time of his departure. Perhaps now he was going to rejoin the other members of his group? It was not unheard of for Clovis to spend a day on his own but it was out of the ordinary-he was gregarious, even by chimpanzee standards. I had been watching him for three -hours, during which time he had done almost nothing singular or unusualbut then that too was worth recording, of course. I stood up and stretched and walked to the mulemba tree to examine Clovis's feces. I took out a little specimen bottle from my bag and, with a twig, collected some. That would be my present for Hauser.
I walked back down the path that led me in the general direction of the camp. A large proportion of the trails in this part of the forest had been recently cleared and the going was easy. I had had markers and directional arrows nailed to trees at important intersections to help me find my way about. This portion of the reserve, south of the big stream, was far less familiar than the main research area to the north.
I walked at a steady even pace — I was in no particular hurry to get back-and in any event was reasonably tired. The real force of the afternoon's heat had passed; I could see the sun on the topmost branches of the trees but down here on the forest floor all was dim shadow. I enjoyed these walks home at the end of the day and I preferred the confined vistas of the forest to more impressive panoramas — I liked being hemmed in, rather than exposed. I liked the vegetation close to me, bushes and branches brushing my sides, the frowsty smell of decaying leaves and the filtered, screened neutrality of the light.
As I walked I took out a cigarette. It was a Tusker, a local brand, strong and sweet. As I lit it and drew in the smoke I thought of my ex-husband, John Clearwater. This was the most obvious legacy of our short marriage — a bad habit. There were others, of course, other legacies, but they were not visible to the naked eye.
Joao was waiting for me, about a mile from camp. He sat on a log picking at an old scab on his knee. He looked tired and not very well. Joao was very black, his skin almost a dark violet color. He had a Ilong top lip that made him look permanently sad and serious. He rose to his feet as I approached. We greeted each other and I offered him a cigarette, which he accepted and carefully stored in his canvas bag.
"Any luck?" I asked.
"I think, I think I see Lena," he said. "She very big now." He held out his hands, shaping a pregnant belly. "She come very soon now. But then she run from me."
He gave me his field notes and I told him about my uneventful day with Clovis as we strolled back to camp. Joao was my full-time assistant. He was in his forties, a thin, wiry man, diligent and loyal. We were training his second son, Alda, as an observer, but he was away today in the city, trying to sort out some problem to do with his military service. I asked how Alda was progressing.
"I think he will return tomorrow," Joao said. "They say the war is finish soon, so no more soldiers are required."
"Let's hope so."
We talked a little about our plans for the next day. Soon we reached the small river that Mallabar — I think-had whimsically named the Danube. It was fed from the damp grasslands high on the plateau to the east, and descended in a series of pools and falls in a long deepish valley through our portion of the Semirance Forest, and then moved on, more sedately and ever broadening, until it met the great Cabule River a hundred and fifty miles away on the edge of the coastal plain.Brazzaville Beach
Posted October 19, 2013
Great read. Two stories alternate and both are interesting. I thought I would like the part about Africa best, and I did like the focus on primate study (kudos for making the main character a woman because many of the major experts are women) with the war as a backdrop only occasionally entering the main drama. I found the English story just as interesting. The author really understands vastly different subjects. This is the first book I have read by Boyd and I am looking forward to reading more of his work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 30, 2001
This book was unusual.I loved the first page or two of the book where Boyd sets out the scene of the book. I then thought the book would be about this exotic location set against the back drop of an African civil war. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the book was about chimps and the study of these chimps. I liked the meandering philosophy of the book and the telling of the story of Hope Clearwater's life.I understood the comparison of the war between the chimps and civil war but I HATED everything there was to do with the chimps. This book shows a intelligent force at work. Boyd is a worthwhile writer and I will try to read more of his work as long as he doesn't write about chimps!!Incidently he wrote the book for the film 'A good man in Africa'. This was a fine film starring Sean Connery and others.Watch it!
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Posted May 10, 2013
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Posted May 27, 2011
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