Taking the biscuit
Sue Wilson talks to William Boyd about his MeVitie Prize-winning
novel, the phenomenally successful Brazzaville Beach.
Asked to list the ingredients of a No 1 best-selling novel. most people‘s answers would include sex. money, glamour. crime and possibly more sex. Few, I imagine. would be likely to suggest warring chimpanzees. neurotic primatologists, the higher reaches of mathematical theory or a bloody. interminable African civil war. Yet these are all key components of William Boyd‘s latest opus. which has enjoyed sustained stretches at the top of the book charts in hardback and paperback. as well as receiving all-round rave reviews. A couple of weeks ago. to round off a memorable year. it earned Boyd the I991 MeVitie Prize. Brazzaville Beach is the story of an intelligent. resourceful and largely unflappable young woman named Hope Clearwater. who escapes from a mad mathematician husband to work on an African research project. logging the behaviour of local chimpanzees. One day. a horrified Hope witnesses a murderous fight among the chimps. then another. and another. until it becomes evident that an all-out war over territory and breeding is taking place. Unfortunately. these findings have devastating implications for the project‘s director. who has made his name (and his research money)
‘No matter how esoteric or recherche the J
ideas are, you should still keep the reader turning the pages.’
by studying the ‘peaceful primate'. With this framework. plus an affair with a local mercenary pilot and an abduction by one of the rival (human) armies. the scene is set for what is. first and foremost. a gripping. action-packed page-turner.
'When I read. I want to be beguilcd. I want to be seduced by a book; if I'm not. then I‘ll stop reading it.’ says Boyd. ‘1 think ifyou’re writing as a novelist then a tacit contract exists between you and the reader. which has nothing to do with setting out to be accessible or readable. it‘s to do with something very basic about narrative. The novel is. obviously. pre-cminently a narrative medium. and so you should be interested at a very simple level in what‘s going to happen next. Anything else is a bonus, but somehow that initial tug has to be present. It‘s something I‘m very conscious ofwhen I write; no matter how esoteric or recherche the ideas or subject matter are, you should still keep the reader turning the pages.‘
Boyd‘s craftsmanship tells in the way the novel‘s various richly-patterned strands knit seamlessly together to form a substantial and satisfying whole. It tells in attention to detail; every scene. in England or Africa. takes place within a landscape, a locale, an atmosphere; subsidiary characters are thoughtfully and fully realised. Perhaps Boyd’s most conspicuous achievement in this respect. though, is his central character. Many male
novelists have attempted to write from the perspective of a woman; few have achieved such credible and likeable results. ‘I felt it would be something different to try. a fresh challenge.‘ says Boyd. ‘Usually one tends to write almost unreflectingly about one‘s own sex — I'm sure the same applies to women novelists — so it adds an extra element of consciousness to the process. I thought about trying to approach it by canvassing opinions from women. but I realised I‘d probably end up buried beneath a mound of conﬂicting ideas. so what I did was just to get the character completely clear in my head. so I knew exactly what kind of person she was. That way. even when it came to a moment where gender was an issue, I found I was writing about her as a person rather than a representative of her sex.‘
Chimpanzees aside. the central conﬂict played out in the novel is between those who try to impose their own system of order on the world. attempt to make it reflect back what they want to seexand those. like Hope. who recognise life for an unpredictable. disorderly bag of tricks, and are prepared to roll with the punches. The first approach is. signiﬁcantly, exemplified by two
scientists: Hope’s husband. who gradually loses his grip because he cannot make patterns of turbulence conform to his equations. and the head of the research project. who firstly tries to destroy Hope‘s data (by burning her hut down. among other tactics). and finally assaults her when he witnesses a chimp battle for himself.
‘I think we are gradually coming to realise that there are limits. there are gaps in what can be explained.‘ says Boyd. ‘What‘s particularly intriguing about modern science is that these ambiguities and grey areas. are now having to become part of the formulae. and that seems to be very true of the way we blunder through our lives; we understand a certain amount. but a lot of the time we‘re playing it off the cuff. relying on intuition. and it‘s curious to find those courses of action reproduced in mathematical theory. But then anyone who tries to W the world to their particular philosophy is e .tually going to be proved wrong; life is mu ore a matter of finessing your way thrt. 'in trying to analyse it all.’
Brazzaville Beach is published by Penguin at £4.99.
0N FOLLOWING PAGES: WILLIAM MCILVANNEY O JEAN GIMPEL O BESS BOSS
The List 20 December 1991— 16 January 1992 91