My rating: 3 of 5 stars
(This is a long review, so here’s a quick summary: clever book about men and women, disgrace and sex. If I was a man I may have given it 5 stars. I gave it 3 because it made me think that.)
‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.’
What an opening sentence that is. It sets up a dry, comical tone and the main character very well. But thinking about it now, it also has a lot of resonance. I had been going to say that the first half was much stronger than the second but I’m now wondering if that’s something I’d change my mind about were I to re-read this. No. A re-read would reveal the opening as even stronger than I’d previously thought in the way it cleverly sets up the rest of the book. And the problems I have with the latter half would still be problems. Perhaps they’d become problems of the whole.
The biggest of these is the men vs women (and vice versa) mentality. The main character is a bit of a prick. For most of the time that’s OK because he’s interesting and you get the sense that you’re not ‘meant’ to like him, anyway, but his development makes him less interesting and no less of a prick. I also got the sense that I was supposed to like him more as the book progressed. I didn’t. His thought processes worried me, especially when he considered how women thought about men, because it made me wonder if this is how men really think. Even if they don’t, the fact that he made me consider that is a problem in itself – people are people – there is no way men think and no way women think and to suggest that all men see women as sexual objects and all women are passively accepting of this is poisonous. Perhaps this is the point – the book is intended to highlight and attack the problem, not condone it – but that’s not the impression I got. You could argue it’s a story, not a lecture, and to make his message clear would ruin that. Either way, the possibility of the promotion of this message is worrying.
Another problem was there are two big plot events that I just didn’t ‘buy’. His daughter’s reaction to what was done to her, specifically her decisions to stay on the farm and consider Petrus’ proposal; and his relationship with Beth Shaw. Is it supposed to be reformative, somehow? Or is it a further example of men objectifying women and using them for sex? It gave me the sense that I missed something – perhaps I did – but alongside that I had a strong feeling of ‘clever male author knows more than stupid female reader’. A lot of the book made me wonder whether I would get it if I was a man. And with regards to his daughter, it made me think Coetzee didn’t get it because he is a man. Especially as I understood the male protagonist’s point of view much more than hers. His felt real. Hers did not.
Overall, it’s a clever book. I connected with the main character to an extent and enjoyed the writing style without being distracted by it. But it made me constantly wonder if I’d enjoy/understand it more if I was a man. And maybe I would because maybe this is the male equivalent of Chick Lit. Cock Lit, perhaps.