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J M Coetzee: Boyhood

This is an autobiography but as it is written in the third person and in narrative style, it can be considered one of those border line fictions/autobiographies, which is why it is here. As the title indicates, it tells the story of young Coetzee from boyhood – his age is not clear but probably around seven – to being a young teen. The family live in a town called Worcester, ninety miles from Cape Town. Coetzee’s father had had a good job in Cape Town as Collector of Lettings but had lost his job when Smuts lost the election. He now works as a bookkeeper for a cannery firm but does not make much money. The young Coetzee does not like his father. Indeed, he despises him and his Afrikaner ways. He is not too keen on his mother, either, but prefers her to his father and is clearly jealous of his brother, whom his mother seems to prefer. The young Coetzee does not really fit in. He is the school swot and does not get on too well with his classmates, with one or two exceptions. Though Afrikaner by origin, he considers himself very much English. He prefers speaking English, prefers the English and somewhat looks down on the Afrikaners. When he moves to a new school, he is offered the choice of being Christian, Jewish or Roman Catholic. He has no idea what Roman Catholic is but chooses it, as he has a certain interest in the Romans. The result is that he is excluded from the services held by the”Christians” and has to play with the Jews and, as a result, is attacked for being a Jew by the Afrikaners and despised by the Catholics, as he knows nothing about Catholicism.

What he really likes is visiting his uncle’s farm. His father was one of twelve but only the eldest son, called Uncle Son, is interested in farming and he buys out the others. He does very well, as there is a huge demand for sheep wool from Japan. Young Coetzee loves watching the shearing but also the lamb slaughtering, and wandering around the huge farm, particularly with his cousin, Agnes, but also on his own. Though he has a brother, he remains essentially a solitary boy and this is made worse when his father decides there is no future in the cannery business and moves back to near Cape Town, to set up his own law practice. They live in a town called Plumstead, which seems just to be a dormitory suburb and, ironically, young Coetzee has to go to a Catholic school as a non Catholic, as he cannot get into any of the better schools. At St Joseph’s, he has to deal with Mr. Whelan, the English master, who is Irish and hates anything to do with England and marks down young Coetzee. Worse still his father manages his practice badly and ends up losing it, causing his son to hate him even more.

Coetzee’s tale of his life is so well-written that even though nothing major happens in his life at this stage, we cannot help but be enthralled about the actions and thinking of this solitary, intelligent boy, who loves cricket, the English and reading (but considers P C Wren a superior writer to Shakespeare), who is eager to please but a secret rebel. He struggles with the issues of race, not fully understanding his parents’ ways of looking down on the Coloured (i.e. mixed race) and Native people and, like many boys of his age, generally finds the adult world (including sex) somewhat bizarre. These issues and his relationships with his father will appear again in the later fictional autobiographies.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Viking