“This book combines two of my favorite topics - chimpanzees and Africa. The story is at times unnecessarily convoluted, and it does take a bit of time to get used to the alternation of chapters from different perspectives. The plot is fascinating, the scientific information on chimpanzees is up to par, however the characterization leaves a bit to be desired in that the characters are difficult to warm up to. ”TheLibrarian wrote this review Friday, February 22, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“I enjoyed this. The story revolves around an ecologist in Africa, studying Chimps in Mozambique. There's good science, believable characters and a proper story. Three, actually.”Colin Lusk wrote this review Tuesday, January 22, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“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 close of the book, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
Boyd alternates the narrative of Hope’s life in Africa, told in first person, with that of her life in England, rendered in third person. The contrast between these two parts of her life, as well as Western and African cultures, represents a central challenge for Hope (and thus Boyd) to integrate. Each section is introduced with a segment from mathematical or biological sciences, which reflect on work concerns of her mathematician husband or herself. I love how Boyd has Hope trying to use analogies from academic advances to provide structure for her efforts to understand her life’s journey. For example, her husband John makes a lot of progress in areas of turbulence and catastrophe theory, which fuels her efforts to account for sudden discontinuities in her own life; as John’s own psychological instability leads him to focus instead on invariance of forms in the field of topology, she looks to how other people differ from her ultimately in only in minor ways. She also learns a lot about the relativism of frames of reference, which she relates her own mood influencing her levels of optimism or pessimism. To me Boyd isn’t making a heavy philosophical stretch here, but he is illustrating very well how people link abstract ideas to their personal lives and outlook.
In the case of Hope’s work at the research station, the parallels between primate and human behavior represent a more substantive analogy. For decades, Jane Goodall’s work on chimps in their natural environment captivated the world with a vision of largely peaceful, almost Edenic, society, which we, as their closest evolutionary relatives, might somehow aspire to regain. The shock of discovery that chimps in some circumstances engage in infanticide, cannibalism, and lethal territorial warfare put an end to such simplistic thinking. As this work was widely publicized, it is not much of a spoiler to reveal that the plot of this book deals with Hope making discoveries of such violence and encountering conflicts and resistance in acceptance of her findings. I thought Boyd’s portrayal of conflicts between scientific objectivity and human biases and emotions to be quite plausible, although I am sure the scientists involved in this work would be offended over the dramatic fiction.
The book includes a segment where the unstable politics of the Congo intrude dangerously on the lives of the scientists in the form of actions by a revolutionary faction. Compared to the murder of gorilla researcher Dian Fossey in Rwanda, the events included in this narrative are restrained, but frighteningly realistic. The charming rebel leader featured, Dr. Amilcar, deflates Hope’s sense of the importance of her scientific work by exclaiming “You value a monkey more than a human” and by concluding “You think that if you know everything you can escape from the world. But you can’t.”
Hope is a fully realized character that I admired both as a strong woman hero and as a very human scientist. As made clear at the start, she survives the cataclysmic climaxes of both threads of her life revealed at the end. As she walks the beach at the end, as in interludes elsewhere in the book, the theme of permanence despite perpetual change is realized. Like life itself, a simple story of powerful events linked to a few choices resonates with many universal themes.”
“Complex structure. Interesting to read about chimpanzee research on one storyline and about the mathematical mind in another. Characters not too likeable. ”Barbara M wrote this review Friday, June 15, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“There's something of a cottage industry for ape-based literary fiction, but few entrants compare to the quiet majesty of this memorable novel set in an unnamed country in Africa. Part romantic suspense novel, part intellectual thriller, Boyd's best book offers a masterful mingling of luscious language, mathematical metaphor, and chimp-gore galore. --Jason Kirk (Twitter: @brasswax)”Jason Kirk wrote this review Sunday, May 27, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“The second book by William Boyd that I've read and another dissatisfying read. Compared to Ordinary Thunderstorms, which I remember being ludicrous, cheesy and aspiring to be much more than it was, this book was considerably better written. However, it still managed to be a superficial read, perhaps with pretensions of depth that are not there. The book was very readable in the easily digestible manner that was present in Ordinary Thunderstorms. However, its two story-lines both lack climaxes that leave an impression. Furthermore, both stories, different phases of the narrators life, have their conclusions delayed by an interruption that could have been interesting but was, instead, merely book-filler. A book that fails to fulfil any of the potential that it builds at various points in the book. A fine piece of trash, I suppose. ”Chris C wrote this review Sunday, January 8, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Good BUT..not exactly sure why I am reserving full praise. It's good BUT something about the main character ..... Boyd doesn't create a fully convincing female in this text. ”dianne caskie wrote this review Sunday, January 8, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“scientist can't find love, get screwed over by research pi, discover chimps are as violent and sex crazy as humans. got to love it”vetronater wrote this review Monday, May 16, 2011. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“I read this years ago but loved it. I can't admit to understanding all of it, but it's a great story.”Kristina L wrote this review Monday, November 1, 2010. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“I challenge you to read this book and ever look at our primate cousins the same way again. The book (and the apes) terrified me. But the book is not some Planet of the Apes meets Congo horror novel. This is a book about human morality. ”Biogeek wrote this review Sunday, October 3, 2010. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No