Review: Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee

disgraceEvery now and again you come across a book that sets mood and tone perfectly, and you kinda have to wonder how much better crime novels would be if they all achieved this. James Lee Burke gets it consistently right, as does Joseph Wambaugh. But a prime example is J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace.

David Lurie is a self-obsessed and selfish lecturer in Cape Town who has an impulsive affair with one of his students, which ends on a bitter note of public reprobation. Rather than admit his guilt, the proud and stubborn man resigns and heads for the country to visit his daughter. There he soon finds himself mingling with people that teach him vastly different ways of how to live a life, for better or worse, and he soon discovers that the South Africa that was once his, by token of his race, is changing into something threatening and unknowable.

This book won Coetzee the Booker Prize in 1999, and it is easy to see why. The narrative’s style is jarring and in places distinctly unpleasant – magnificently reflecting the nature of the book itself. Issues of power, whether related to race or gender, are explored to their horrifying extremes and we watch David Lurie’s character broken down and transformed by each major event. Characterisation and narrative are seamlessly entwined, although Lucy’s behaviour – essential to the story’s message – sometimes strains believability.

This is not an easy read and the novel will leave you feeling disturbed for days on end. My only complaint is more of a simple gripe: this is literature at its most earnest and therefore not very accessible. Sometimes the reading feels more like an intellectual test than a work of art easily appreciated. Where Salman Rushdie’s writing allows you room to absorb it on many different levels, Disgrace makes you sweat every step of the way.

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