Brazzaville Beach is the William Boyd book I have most wanted to read since drifting into his work. Moreover it is the book most other people have wanted me to read. So they at least will be pleased to hear that I loved it. What concerns me is why they thought I would.

I fear it may be for the bonkers mathematician character in it. Cheers, I do not do the maths anymore (though I am actually reading that cognitive psychology book about maths that Alan leant me and am really rather enjoying it). What strikes me most forcibly about Brazzaville Beach is how, for a book which is fundamentally about jealousy, how much window dressing there is. Firstly envy is never directly identified as the source of all this conflict, where even in the chimpanzee war it quite clearly is. But in his attempts to stop us discovering this too soon (or at all) Boyd runs through a crash course in degree level mathematics, primate biology, hedgerow botany and African civil wars. It is not unlike the ragbag of clever and fascinating detail in his longer, faux autobiographies, but in this more taut novel the stakes seem higher. Dual narratives are always difficult to pull off, and here we can compare groundbreaking science in exotic Africa with low key failed romance and maths in the UK. And yet both stories compliment each other and you never feel you are with one too long without visiting the other. Boyd gives you at lot to look at in the book, but never tells you what to think. Combining this with a theme which crystallizes as the book finally unfolds, it is a rare piece where the components (research, narrative, structure) contribute to a greater whole.

The last time I talked about Boyd (Any Human Heart) I wondered if I had got used to him, and the law of diminishing returns would set in. The answer is happily no. The secret, as mooted in that piece is that Hope Clearwater as a lead is a much more flawed character (or perhaps a much more self critical lead) than in many of his others. Roll on The Blue Afternoon.