Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Do you want to know one of the reasons why I love being in a book club? Books like Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. I never would have picked it up otherwise. The synopsis immediately turned me off, and I wasn't sure if I was going to read it at all. I am so glad I did.

The protagonist, Professor David Lurie, is far from what one would consider a hero, or even a character worthy of empathy. Teaching in Cape Town in post-Apartheid South Africa, he is twice divorced, yet has no problem finding sex. He either pays for it, or coerces one of his students. In this case, the student is Melanie, and Lurie finds himself disgraced and without a job. Unsure of what to do with himself, Lurie retreats to his daughter Lucy's farm. He becomes caught up in a complex social, political and emotional situation when an unspeakable crime is committed against his daughter while he is locked up in the next room unable to help her.

The word "rape" is mentioned only once in the situation with Lurie and his student, but not in the horrific event with his daughter and the three men who came to attack her, yet it's one of the major themes of this book. One can not help but see the irony in that Lurie himself did not consider the relationship with his student rape, "Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core." He is disgraced by his rape of his student, yet his daughter is disgraced by something she did not cause, something she had no control over, and something that in my country, in my time, a woman should not be ashamed of. Meanwhile, Lucy "would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident, modern young woman...they showed her what a woman was for."

Thankfully, Coetzee saves his readers from a gratuitously graphic scene in both cases. Still, we can infer what happened, and our own imaginations allow us to reach the worst possible conclusions.

In addition to the rape element to this story, there are several other themes that are woven around this place and time: poetry, religion, race, sex, relationships, family, friendship, aging, politics, and, most of all, disgrace. If I went into detail on each element, my review would be longer than the Nobel Prize winning book itself.

I have to say, although I hate this word when describing a book, I feel that with such deep subject matters it has to be said -- Disgrace, despite the heavy content, is extremely readable. Coetzee is brilliant in saying what needs to be said without beating a dead horse, and without taking one hundred pages to say what could be said in ten. I think it's what he leaves unsaid that makes Disgrace such a beautifully written book.

Disgrace is one of those books that stays with you for a while after you read it. I am extremely glad I read this book. Many thanks to Laurel for choosing it, and to Nancy for allowing me to borrow it.

For more, check out Penguin's Reader's Guide.

Disgrace can be seen on the big screen with John Malkovitch as David Lurie. For more information on the movie, go here.

Watch the movie trailer Here.

About the Book:
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); 25th Printing edition (October 31, 2000)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0140296409
ISBN-13: 978-0140296402
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