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Book Review: Disgrace: A Novel by J. M. Coetzee

A literature (more recently, communications) professor has an affair with a student and is forced to leave his career in Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace, which also won the Booker Prize. Twice divorced, David Lurie ends up moving in with his daughter Lucy on her farm in rural South Africa. There, David is further disgraced by his inability to protect his daughter when they are the victims of a violent crime. The plot is divided fairly sharply into city and country. In the city, David at least seems competent. He has a job and a (paid) mistress. After he is cast out into the country, he seems helpless; he relies on his daughter for food and shelter and has to be instructed in the most basic of tasks. His complete impotence when they are threatened by thugs reinforces just how out-of place he and Lucy are as white people in rural South Africa.

There weren’t really any likeable characters in the book; in fact, the main characters are downright horrible. David Lurie has to be the most unappealing protagonist I’ve encountered in a long time. Some characters are anti-heroic, but I don’t think David even qualifies for that designation. He’s just a really unpleasant man I would never want to meet. The line dividing the men who brutalize David’s daughter Lucy and David himself in his relationships with women is nearly non-existent. Lucy herself could have been a sympathetic character, but the reader — trapped in David’s point of view — can’t know or understand her any better than David can.

The writing is brilliant, thought-provoking, and disturbing. I can’t fault Coetzee here, yet with such disturbing subject matter, the book left me unsettled. I read this book along with my book group, composed of women educators. We were lucky enough to have a member who lived in South Africa for several years and could illuminate for us the reasons that this book is uniquely South African. Without at least some familiarity with post-Apartheid conditions in that country, readers could have difficulty understanding some of the events that occur. It’s difficult to criticize a novel by a Nobel Prize winner. It usually just makes the reviewer look stupid. But when I read, I’m not just reading for literary or philosophical value. There has to be something about the book that I fall in love with. Here, I can admire the craft, as one would admire a well-wrought but horribly ugly piece of art, but far from engaging with my spirit, the book made me just feel a little befouled from having handled it. 2/5*

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