The novel by JM Coetzee, Disgrace, was winner of the Man Booker prize in 1999 and has been something I have wanted to read for quite a few years. Two years ago I selected it as one of the options for my Once Were Wallabies book club, and a couple of months ago it finally came up. My criteria for my book club selections every year is pretty simple – books I’ve wanted to read but haven’t gotten around to. So I was very eager to finally read this, and also hear what my fellow book club members thought of it.
The main character of this novel, David, is not at all likable or sympathetic. He is a man in his 50s, a University Professor who has strange notions of ‘love’ and uses his position of power to form odd relationships with young women. First, there is the prostitute he forms a one-sided emotional attachment to, and then there is the obsession that becomes his undoing, that for one of his female students. David doesn’t feel he has done anything wrong by pursuing her and sexualising their relationship, and so is surprised and outraged to be shown the door by the University. He decides to visit his daughter, Lucy, who lives in a remote part of South Africa. It is there that the story really starts to take off and where I just couldn’t put it down.
In just 200-odd pages, JM Coetzee has found a way to show the reader the lives of people in South Africa post-apartheid. After what is a brutal attack on them by 3 black men, Lucy accepts this as ‘punishment’ for the apartheid, whereas David struggles to accept her life decisions, despite her acceptance of bad things happening to her as things she deserves for past actions mirroring his own fall from grace. I didn’t actually notice this as I was reading, but one of the book club members pointed out that Coetzee uses different language at the start of the book than he does at the end. He begins with more ‘academic’ language and the language simplifies as David loses his position of power. This is a very interesting and effective writing technique. Dogs are also used throughout the book as symbols of humanity and this is done very well.
I would say this is probably a polarising book – you’re either going to love it or hate it. One of our book club members couldn’t enjoy the book at all because of David and his intolerable acts. I, however, am really glad I have finally read it, and very much enjoyed it. It’s definitely not a feel-good book though, so pick your timing.
Amount of books I still need to read for the Booker challenge I set myself: 253.
Disgrace by JM Coetzee – 4 out of 5 stars.