Friday Reads – J.M. Coetzee

I was really looking forward to reading the J.M Coetzee novel that was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year. I think he’s a fantastic, hard hitting writer with clever and gripping novels. So I was extra disappointed that I didn’t really enjoy The Schooldays of Jesus… Or The Childhood of Jesus.

In fact, I began by reading The Childhood of Jesus, thinking that this was the book on the Booker longlist. Simón and Davíd arrive at a refugee camp on the shores of Novilla. Davíd has lost his mother in the journey and Simón begins to look after the boy, vowing to find his mother. Novilla is not a real place – some reviewers have called it something of a utopia, but to me it seems the opposite, a passionless, boring, grey world where food is handed out for free (or very cheap) but it’s just bread and everyone lives in public housing blocks. The book follows their attempts to find a mother for Davíd and to make a life for themselves in Novilla.

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I was really intrigued at first, wondering where the story was going to take us, wanting to find out more about the world the characters live in and what had happened to them before. But I never did, the storyline never went there.

Only when I was nearing the end, waiting for the book to end, did I realise that this was not in fact the book I had meant to read and I had to read another, similar one. It was the first and only time I doubted my project of reading all the Bookers, as generally my life aim is not to make myself do things I don’t want to do, and don’t have to do. But on I went, continuing to follow the story of Davíd and Simón. And to be honest, I enjoyed the second book even less because I didn’t have the anticipation that was there at the start of the first!

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The Schooldays of Jesus is even less plot and character driven, focusing almost entirely on the philosophical, on ideas. Davíd, Simón, and Ines (the woman who has taken on the role of David’s mother) have moved north, to Estrella, where the form of Davíd’s education allows for long philosophical soliloquies. In this passionless, banal world, there is a school which teaches children through the medium of dance, a school where a horrific event happens that Davíd witnesses. But again, the story is not about the event, not about the characters involved or the place in which it happens. It is merely a philosophical lecture, or so it seems to me. It was, in my opinion, pretty well summed up by this review in the Guardian:

The Schooldays of Jesus, philosophically dense as it is, is parched, relentlessly adult fare – rather like eating endless bread and bean paste.

Perhaps (most likely) I missed something. But in any event, it was my least favourite of the Bookers and not a book (or two books!) that I would recommend.

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