Tuesday, May 18, 2010

REVIEW: Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. Published 1999 by Penguin. Literary Fiction. Booker Prize Winner.

Winner of the 1999 Man Booker Prize, Disgrace is a stunner of a novel. It's the second Booker Prize winner by South African author J.M. Coetzee (the first was Life and Times of Michael K, a winner in 1983) and almost as soon as I started it I could see why it won. It's one of the those novels that really has it all- a strong plot, great characters, distinctive style and strong setting. The plot? David Lurie, a Cape Town college professor, ruins his life after an ambiguous affair with a student, then goes to live with his daughter Lucy, a homesteader in rural South Africa. There, they endure an unspeakable tragedy. The rest of the novel is fallout from these two life-changing events.

Also omnipresent in the book are the racial and sexual politics of South Africa as the characters wrestle with guilt and the consequences in this landscape of living the lives they want for themselves. If you read Solar and thought Michael Beard was an unappealing character, you're going to hate David Lurie, a stubborn, difficult man bitter about his diminishing prospects with career and women who refuses to see the reality of every situation he's in. At the same time, though, Coetzee makes the reader care about him first by punishing him and then by showing his slow crawl back to humanity via the growing compassion that builds through his work in a veterinary hospital.

Gender, sexuality and race are but a few of the themes running through this dense, economically written novel. Coetzee races through the affair and Lurie's downfall then lingers over Lurie's new life with Lucy and its brutal fallout. His recreation of life on Lucy's farm was so vivid I felt like I was there; Lurie's ostracism from his academic life is equally vivid and moving. Lucy and Lurie are both unforgettable characters, so entrenched in their points of view and so unwilling to see any but their own way out of their predicaments. I read the book in about two days and couldn't put it down once I started. For the reader of literary fiction who can like an unlikeable protagonist, Disgrace is a must-read. I received the book in a Bookmooch trade and it came with a sticky note on the title page that read "Phenomenal piece of literature. You will not be disappointed!" I couldn't agree more.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.