Dan Sandman

30: Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction, Non-Fiction on 26/07/2013 at 12:00 pm

Boyhood by J.M. CoetzeeAs tales of childhood go, mine is as about interesting as anyone else’s. I had a family, I went to school and eventually turned into a teenager. In between these rather run of the mill events, lots of things happened that could be turned into a memoir. But if I was to sit down and begin regaling the anecdotes it might be quite a dull book. I’d probably tell the story predictably, in the first person, pointing out lots of detailed various landscapes and colourful people along the way. I doubt I’d think of utilising the third person and sparsely fictionalise my upbringing, fears about society and personal relationships as bleak sepia toned photographs.

But J.M Coetzee is not me: he is a great writer. He writes in a style that is his own. He is able to tell the story in such a way that will drag you into his world view. The world you’re dragged into is a dark world of conflicting emotions. A place where childhood is presented as naked and at times ugly. He is wise, serious and somewhat superior. He is not afraid to show contempt and take judgement. And his book is a good read, depressing at times yes, but nonetheless a very well written piece of writing.

Some things about growing up – riding a bike, playing cricket, going to see a film, visiting family – seem universal to boyhood. That’s why this book had me turning the pages; because it reminded me of the types of things that boys do, how they think and feel. And Coetzee, born in 1940, was a boy growing up in pre-apartheid South Africa. This made the book particularly compelling.

Because it is a boy who the story follows, complex politics and salient themes are seen from a boy’s perspective. National attitudes towards race, religion and sex are intoned through memories of growing up. The boy’s birthday party is “spoiled” by “ragged coloured children”. He “retreats in dismay” from his Afrikaans classmate’s “monosyllabic heaviness”. He looks up to the English “who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well”. Already, at a young age, the boy has defined his social landscape in racial terms and yet doesn’t conform to the expectations of society. Apprehensive of history lessons, he decides to like the Russians; not sure what religion he belongs to, he says he’s Catholic because he’s read stories about heroic Romans. Everything in life, his education and his family, feels ominous to the boy. At home, he doesn’t like his father and squirms when his mother mentions the word love.

If this book wasn’t written with acutely descriptive verve, the serious tone could seem too dismal for most reader’s tastes. But it is written with great exactness and fans of Coetzee’s work will recognise his remarkably elegant style. In my life, the book has helped me to think about childhood in a reflective way. How school education can overly focus on the passing of exams whilst creativity is shunned as being abnormal. How children can feel helpless when something dramatic happens in their family life. How young people struggle to come to terms with grown-ups contradictory world views.

Serious things, but nonetheless worth thinking about.

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