I began reading this novel on the train on the way to meet my uni friends for a day on Bridlington beach and by the end of my return journey later that day I had almost finished it. I pretty much entirely ignored the beautiful countryside views from the train window as I was so engrossed in reading. This novel is definitely deserving of its Booker Prize winning status.
Initially I disliked the novel. Its protagonist, David Lurie, a lecturer at Cape Town University, is an anti-hero who becomes embroiled in a sleazy affair with one of his students, Melanie Issacs. There is no redeeming feature about the affair; it is entirely seedy, sordid and distasteful. From the huge age gap between the two (and his continual references to his almost paternal affections for her despite their sexual relationship), Melanie’s passive behaviour which verges on non-consensual, and worse still, his stubborn and unapologetic way of dealing with the consequences once their affair is discovered, the whole thing does not endear you to Lurie’s character. Unsurprisingly I did not feel warmly towards his character and I did consider not reading any further.
However I did persevere (it’s only 200 pages long and I still had 40 minutes of train journey to go) but I’m pleased that I did. Following his fall from grace, Lurie leaves Cape Town and goes to live with his daughter for a few weeks on her farm in a remote part of the Eastern Cape. Shortly after Lurie has settled into rural life, they experience a horrific attack which ruptures the bond between them and throws both characters into a state of shock. While not written in very explicit detail the attack is nevertheless difficult to read and its effect on the characters, particularly, Lucy, David’s daughter, is palpable. Afterwards neither father or daughter can understand each others different responses to what happened and so they are unable to communicate without frustration. Coetzee explores what creates the ability to empathise and questions whether differences in gender, age, race or family ties have the power to influence our capacity for empathy.
Coetzee’s novel is an exposé of human error and obstinacy; none of his characters are faultless and all must cope with mistakes and hardship. Coetzee has a fluid writing style and an effortless talent for capturing the humanity behind his characters decisions. He also offers the reader a revealing slice of post-apartheid South Africa and how tension still exists, recent history still being in within a memorable epoch. Yet in my opinion the novel doesn’t become political, which is refreshing; the novel is much more about the people, the characters themselves.
In contrast to its small page count this novel is not a light read but I would definitely recommend it. It is very good.