The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

childhoodofjesusJ.M. Coetzee is a master at creating allegorical worlds that feel grounded and real, while remaining ethereal and dreamlike. Here in Novilla, everyone speaks Spanish, but it is never their native tongue. Bread is the course du jour, and every other meal. Everyone is polite and benevolent but spiritless and fleeting.  And the government will give you a house, but it will be spartan and drear.

To this world, which may be heaven or purgatory or simply another world in an endless stretch of possible worlds our soul travels through, our protagonist, Simón, and his adoptive child, David, arrive after their refugee ship sinks. For the first half of this novel, as Simón searches for David’s mother and the characters explore the bland and frankly sinister world, the novel is pretty good. Coetzee is an excellent writer. Most of the book is dialogue. I was invested in the mystery of what was going on — were Simon and David dead? Was David’s “mother” abusive? Why is Simón seemingly the only character in the novel who can feel sexual attraction? Where is this book going with its endless prattle on the importance of mothers versus fathers?

Then I reached the point where I was far enough in the book that I became certain none of the mysteries would be unveiled nor many questions answered. This is perfectly acceptable in some novels. Sometimes, the writing is stellar and the novel is constructed, either thematically or structurally, in such a way as no conclusion or denouement is necessary. While the writing is indeed good, The Childhood of Jesus is otherwise not that kind of novel. The symbolism is murky, the connection to the biblical title tenuous at best. Honestly, I’m not sure what Coetzee is trying to say. There’s a philosophical streak running through the book that wonders what is real? How do we know two plus two really equals four? But it’s basic and amounts to very little. The narrative begins to flounder about two thirds in and the novel becomes nearly as bland as the world it describes.

(I won this in a goodreads giveaway)

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