By William Boyd
New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990
316 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2009

Note: See at bottom of my comments for a reader in England who takes issue with my understanding of the novel.

In 1974 Hope Clearwater goes to the Congo to work on a project observing chimpanzees. Sheís at the Grosso Arvore Research Center, a project that is some 30 plus years old, well established and respected. Itís creator and central figure is Eugene Mallabar. Hope, who received her PHD in plant and animal ethnology just a few years before going to the chimp observation project, was married to John Clearwater, a strange and troubled mathematician.

Hope causes great trouble at the research center when she discovers a group of chimps behaving in a way that is totally out of character for the chimps of the past 30 years. Her observations threaten the long-term body of work of Mallabar and the center.

While the story of Hopeís work at the center and the events of the chimps is a fascinating tale and the largest portion, it really isnít the center of the novel. Rather, there are four lines of narrative in this complex novel, and this complexity is itself a fifth element and the heart of the novel. Each of the many chapters begins with a passage printed in italics. These are sometimes written in the voice of Hope and sometimes seem to be from an all-knowing narrator. Most of these passages deal with the work of John Clearwater and his ground breaking work in mathematics. Others deal with their marriage and how his mental state and his work in mathematics affects this marriage. The central thrust of Johnís work seems to be that he is working in various forms of indeterminate mathematics, and there is an obvious (but very unclear) attempt to match the mathematical research of John to the vagaries and indeterminacy of everyday life itself as Hope lives it.

Mathematical indeterminacy is an unusual field. We tend to think of most mathematics as giving us quite determinate rules for various measures in and of the world. But things like game theory, turbulence theory and other such topics demand a mathematics that will not and cannot lead to determinate and clear ďanswers.Ē It is to view the world differently.

There was a passage late in the novel which helped to get a clearer picture of what sort of mind John Clearwater had. Hope has read about a famous philosopher, she canít recall whom, who said there were three key questions that humans must ask

Johnís answer infuriates Hope and she rages internally about his arrogance, but she keeps the answers he wrote out for her on a piece of paper: His answers:

Another set of passages, generally related to the italic passages about Johnís mathematical dreams, are flashbacks by Hope to her life with John at the university and then while she was working on an ancient estate in southeast England just after she finished her PHD. She was dating and describing the hedgerows and other plant life of the manor.

The longest part of the novel is the story of Hopeís work at the chimp center in the Congo. I was gripped by the novel, but uncomfortable that I was having a very difficult time integrating the very different parts of the novel. For most of the novel I was blaming myself as being an inadequate reader, unable to integrate what seemed obviously was supposed to be integrated. In the end I came to believe that the fault wasnít with me, but that author William Boyd just didnít quite pull of this bold and exciting plan to integrate these threads, and especially convincing the reader that lifeís everyday indeterminacies were somehow matched with the work going on in mathematical indeterminacy in the contemporary scholarly world. There is one passage late in the novel when Boyd seems to come closest to revealing his structural plan. Hope, through no fault of her own, has been thrown into a very dangerous situation during the civil war going on in The Congo. She reflects:

ďI thought of Mallabar briefly, of what had taken place in the forest of what he had tried to do to me. In a way he was responsible for my current plight. If I hadnít fled camp, if Ianís Land Rover hadnít been delayed departing Ö The ĎifĒ clauses would go backward through my life toward the day of my birth, tracing my personal route through the forking paths of happen-stance and whim, my selections, willed and unwilled, from the spread deck of infinite alternatives and chances that the world and time offered.Ē

Or, as Robert Frost expressed it so simply and eloquently:

Two roads diverged in a yellow road, and I Ė
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In sum I guess there are really five stories. A relatively short one about Johnís work in mathematics; the story of their marriage; the story of Hopeís work at the manor in England; the longer story of Hopeís work at the chimp center; then the whole novel, somehow unified by the similarity between Johnís mathematical theories and the complexity of Hopeís life. Each of the four individual stories was well done and fascinating. However, I came away from the novel with the uncomfortable feeling that the fifth tale, the unifying concept of the whole novel, just never quite came off.

Despite that judgment, one about which Iím still unsure, I would recommend the novel to anyone willing to work through a novel with a good story and an extremely challenging structure.


Simon Ambrose, a reader in England comments:

Simon Ambrose

I know it's a bit late in the day, but I've just read the book. I think you may have missed the central point: this is a book about female emancipation and being happy in yourself- they are the central themes that unite all the different strands. The biggest parallel is the chimps, of course, and the fact that the female chimp who breaks away from the north is eventually dragged back. The thesis at the heart is that the female is at the heart of a happy and cohesive group, and when that breaks down. so does everything else. The book is full of women who have failed to establish themselves and things have falled apart as a result - her bored sister; her bitter mother and father, who is falling apart are all examples. Even her independent but rather sad friend just amplify the theme. In the end, it doesn't matter how much knowledge you acquire (husband) or how you manage to fly (boyfriend), unless you can be happy with yourself, no matter how mundane (hedgerows) things don't work out.


Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett