J M Coetzee, on paper, must be a strong favourite to take the 2016 Man Booker prize. This South African writer, now an Australian citizen, became, in 1999, the first author to win the award twice with “Disgrace” (16 years after “The Life And Times Of Michael K”). He has made the shortlist once since then and this is his third appearance on the longlist. If successful, he would be the first author to win three times. A Nobel Prize winner, he is one of the most celebrated writers of our era and, confession time, I hadn’t read any of his work before.
This, his 13th full-length novel follows on from 2013’s “The Childhood Of Jesus.” I agonised whether to read this first but decided as the prize is for a stand-alone novel then this is how this should be judged. I did spend a couple of minutes scanning Amazon to discover it features the same three central characters and that (surprise surprise) reviewers were not always full of praise. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this- some kind of allegory or fable? I must admit I didn’t feel particularly inspired by the title but Coetzee’s skill is that the reader can read in as much or as little as they want and still manage to get much from the work.
In a Spanish-speaking country in some kind of alternate reality which possesses both a timelessness and modernity, a boy, David, (not his real name) arrives with a woman who may or may not be his mother, Ines, and Simon, a guardian. The three are on the run from authorities and instantly the inferences behind the title suggest themselves. They spend the summer fruit-picking and befriend the owners who agree to contribute to David’s education. He is an extremely inquisitive boy and is enrolled at an Academy Of Dance which follows some obscure philosophy regarding numbers. David, at 6 years old, tries the patience of those around him apart from his Dance teacher whose words he adheres to over and above his family. His veneration of the Dance is shattered when things take a macabre turn at the Academy.
Characterisation is strong. David is as self-centred as any 6 year old has a right to be and the relationship with Simon, the stepfather who is determined to do right by him, is one of the strengths of the novel. The concept of education as a moving away from the family unit is effectively conveyed as Ines and Simon begin to feel pushed out of David’s life. How can we be sure that we are doing the right thing by our children and when is it necessary to intervene? Coetzee is an intellectual writer, undeniably smarter than much of his readership. If we don’t understand all the levels of meaning and where all this is going is it to the detriment of the book? Generally speaking, I would say yes but I thoroughly enjoyed this and that may be the reason this author gets selected for awards. The combination of readability and intellectualism is bound to make us feel good about ourselves as readers. This should certainly make the shortlist.
The Schooldays of Jesus is published by Harvill Secker in August 2016. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance copy.