The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

The naked emperor…

😦 😦

the schooldays of jesusAfter fleeing from Novilla at the end of the last book, Simón, Davíd and Inés arrive in Estrella. While there, Simón will agonise endlessly over how to get a decent education for Davíd, Inés will get a job in a dress shop, and Davíd will become even more obnoxious than he was in The Childhood of Jesus. The pseudo-religious symbolism will be replaced by a load of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo about numbers. And the hollowness of book 1 will turn into a vacuous vacuum in this one.

When I slated The Childhood of Jesus for being essentially empty of all meaning, many Coetzee fans told me not to give up on him – they assured me that really he was a wonderful, intelligent writer with plenty to say. So I gave him a second chance. I find it hard to believe, but this book is actually even more meaningless and shallow than the previous one. If ever there were a case of the emperor’s new clothes, this is it – Mr Coetzee is running naked through the streets, hoping people will still think he’s dressed in robes of gold and purple. Ironic really, since if this book does have a point, it is that the people of this strange country in which our tedious trio have washed up seem willing to worship Davíd despite him being an obnoxious and rather unintelligent spoiled little brat, who frankly should have been sent to bed with no supper at the end of chapter 1, book 1, and not allowed out till he apologised for existing.

Since this is a sequel, the following paragraphs will contain some spoilers for the first book.

emperor-no-clothesAt the end of The Childhood, it was left with Davíd and his surrogate parents fleeing Novilla because the authorities there wanted to put Davíd in some kind of institution, considering his behaviour disruptive. The suggestion, subtly given in the title, was that Davíd was some kind of Messiah, perhaps even actually Jesus, and as he fled he began to pick up followers who recognised his frequently touted but never shown exceptionality. This second book promptly drops all that, and drops other “important” symbolism from book 1 too, such as Inés, the virgin mother in The Childhood, now apparently being a sexually experienced woman (without having had sex in the interim I might add – miraculous!).

Simón, devoted to Davíd and convinced of his exceptionalism in book 1, is now finding that the child is simply difficult – something I feel the rest of us had worked out long before. Davíd shows no affection for these adults who have cared for him and promptly demands to become a boarder at his new school, where they are teaching the children how to call down numbers from the stars via dance. (That sentence alone should surely be enough of a warning to avoid the book at all costs.) Davíd instead gives his love to a weird caretaker, whose main attraction seems to be that he shows the schoolboys lewd pictures of women. But things all go horribly wrong and we have some jejune philosophising on justice and rehabilitation. After avoiding the overt but silly religious symbolism of the first book throughout nearly all of this one, Coetzee then reverts to what must surely be mockery by having Davíd offering redemption if only people would believe in him.

JM Coetzee
JM Coetzee

It is readable because Coetzee is a good storyteller. He manages to create a constant impression that he’s just about to say something meaningful, which keeps the reader turning the pages in hope. But sadly he has nothing meaningful to say, so he fills the space with a lot of pseudo-philosophical absurdity, occasionally humorous but always with a kind of supercilious sneer hidden not very thoroughly between the lines. When discussing book 1 with a fellow reviewer, I joked that Coetzee was probably having a good laugh at all the thousands of people vainly trying to find a coherent meaning in the novel – the joke’s on me for being daft enough to read book 2! Ugh! Needless to say, it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker… an institution always willing to see gorgeous robes where none exist, so long as the emperor has a well-known name.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 94…

Episode 94…

Oh, dear! The TBR has leapt up 4 to 180 this week! How did that happen?? A couple of NetGalley publishers did a clear-out, I think, and I suddenly got approved for two books I “wished” for ages ago, before I became the Mistress of Willpower you all know I now am. Then Amazon reduced the price of a couple that were in my wishlist, so they almost don’t really count, right? So, as you can tell, I am entirely innocent in the matter!

Still, here are a few that will be dropping off the TBR soonish…

Factual

henry VCourtesy of the wonderful Yale University Press, who are doing everything they can to fill the many, many gaps in my knowledge of history. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

The Blurb says: Shakespeare’s centuries-old portrayal of Henry V established the king’s reputation as a warmongering monarch, a perception that has persisted ever since. But in this exciting, thoroughly researched volume a different view of Henry emerges: a multidimensional ruler of great piety, a hands-on governor who introduced a radically new conception of England’s European role in secular and ecclesiastical affairs, a composer of music, an art patron, and a dutiful king who fully appreciated his obligations toward those he ruled.

Historian Malcolm Vale draws on extensive primary archival evidence that includes many documents annotated or endorsed in Henry’s own hand. Focusing on a series of themes—the interaction between king and church, the rise of the English language as a medium of government and politics, the role of ceremony in Henry’s kingship, and more—Vale revises understandings of Henry V and his conduct of the everyday affairs of England, Normandy, and the kingdom of France.

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Fiction

the schooldays of jesusCourtesy of NetGalley. I was really quite underwhelmed by Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, describing it as a hollow egg, with a thick shell of heavy symbolism but containing little profundity. But oddly, I couldn’t resist this new one – a follow-up. Perhaps it will fill in some of the blanks left by the last one. Perhaps. We’ll see…

The Blurb says: When you travel across the ocean on a boat, all your memories are washed away and you start a completely new life. That is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbour and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins.

Davíd is the small boy who is always asking questions. Simón and Inés take care of him in their new town Estrella. He is learning the language; he has begun to make friends. He has the big dog Bolívar to watch over him. But he’ll be seven soon and he should be at school. And so, Davíd is enrolled in the Academy of Dance. It’s here, in his new golden dancing slippers, that he learns how to call down the numbers from the sky. But it’s here too that he will make troubling discoveries about what grown-ups are capable of.

In this mesmerising allegorical tale, Coetzee deftly grapples with the big questions of growing up, of what it means to be a parent, the constant battle between intellect and emotion, and how we choose to live our lives.

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Crime

the methods of sergeant cluffCourtesy of the British Library via MidasPR. I loved the recent reissue of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, so am delighted to have got my hands on this one. A more modern crime classic than many of the BL series, set in Yorkshire in the ’60s, the book is again introduced by the criminally expert Martin Edwards… 

The Blurb says: It is a wet and windy night in the town of Gunnarshaw, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. The body of young Jane Trundle, assistant in the chemist’s shop, is discovered lying face down on the cobblestones. Sergeant Caleb Cluff is not a man of many words, and neither does he play by the rules. He may exasperate his superiors, but he has the loyal support of his constable and he is the only CID man in the division. The case is his. Life in Gunnarshaw is tough, with its people caught up in a rigid network of social conventions. But as Cluff’s investigation deepens, Gunnarshaw’s veneer of hard-working respectability starts to crumble. Sparse, tense, and moodily evoking the unforgiving landscape, this classic crime novel keeps the reader guessing to the end.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Other news…

Exciting news about forthcoming books from bloggie friends! How am I ever supposed to get control of my TBR when I’m subjected to constant temptation???

First Lady of the KeysDue out 1st September 2016, from Lucy Brazier, better known as PorterGirl. This is a revised version of her earlier book, Secret Diary of PorterGirl. Lucy says…

“First Lady Of The Keys is a reworking of my debut novel, Secret Diary Of PorterGirl – so if you bought that one, you will probably feel a bit hard done by if you fork out for this one too. There are significant changes, however, and new characters (including a love interest for Deputy Head Porter) as this has been re-written to be the first in a series dedicated to the adventures of Old College. We even find out Deputy Head Porter’s actual name. Apparently characters have to have names. Pah.”

I did fork out for the first one, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the book has changed anyway. A love interest?!? Cor! Whatever will the Dean say??

The Blurb says: As one of the most ancient and esteemed establishments of the academic elite, Old College is in for something of a shock when it appoints its very first female Deputy Head Porter. She struggles to get to grips with this eccentric world, far removed from everyday life. PorterGirl, the proverbial square peg in the round hole, begins to wonder quite what she is doing here.

PorterGirl – First Lady Of The Keys is a touching, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, glimpse into a world that is usually reserved for the upper echelons of society. Whether she is chasing after naked students, drinking copious amounts of tea or getting embroiled in quaint, polite murders, Deputy Head Porter is never far from adventure.

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past tenseDue out 1st November 2016, from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. This is the third novel in Margot’s Joel Williams series, but excitingly the first to be published on Kindle, making it much easier to get hold of for those of us on this side of the pond. A paper version will be available too, of course, for those who prefer it.

With its academic setting, and I’ve been promised that Joel Williams is neither an alcoholic nor an angst-ridden maverick with swearing issues, I’m very much looking forward to this one!

The Blurb says: A long-buried set of remains…a decades-old mystery

Past and present meet on the quiet campus of Tilton University when construction workers unearth a set of unidentified bones. For former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams, it’s a typical Final Exams week – until a set of bones is discovered on a construction site. When the remains are linked to a missing person case from 1974, Williams and the Tilton, Pennsylvania police go back to the past. And they uncover some truths that have been kept hidden for a long time…

How much do people really need to know?

It’s 1974, and twenty-year-old Bryan Roades is swept up in the excitement of the decade. He’s a reporter for the Tilton University newspaper, The Real Story, and is determined to have a career as an investigative journalist, just like his idols, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He plans to start with an exposé article about life on the campus of Tilton University. But does everything need to be exposed? And what are the consequences for people whose lives could be turned upside down if their stories are printed?  As it turns out, Bryan’s ambition carries a very high price. And someone is determined not to let the truth out.

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Now, if you could all please stop writing books for a while, my TBR and I would be most grateful!