Only the monosyllables can still be relied on

disgraceDisgrace
by J M Coetzee

This book has been on my TBR for about 12 years. I knew enough about the subject matter to expect a tough read so I kept on passing over it. It was actually much more readable than I had expected, but that doesn’t negate the difficult subjects covered.

The lead character is David Lurie, a middle-aged university professor in Cape Town whose specialism of modern languages is no longer on the South African syllabus so he teaches communication instead. His is a limp life, teaching without pleasure, amicably divorced, as good as estranged from his daughter. Even his regular trips to a prostitute are without passion.

Indeed, he is impersonal enough with his regular prostitute Soraya that when one day he sees her in a market with her two children, it throws him off balance. He finds he can’t interact with her in the same way any more and she elects to stop seeing him. Here we get the first clue that David is not especially nice or trustworthy, because his reaction to Soraya’s disappearance is to hire a private detective to find her so that he can phone her and disturb her home life.

That’s just chapter one. From there David goes on to have an affair with one of his students, Melanie, a morally troubling affair, and not because of the age gap or university rules. The balance of power is so far askew it’s difficult to read. Their first sex sounds disturbingly close to rape and the second time is actually described as “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.”

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The numbness didn’t happen all at once

monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter
by Michelle Pretorius

My knowledge of the history of South Africa is a little sketchy, or at least it was before reading this book. But it’s so much more than a historical novel. This is genre-bending fare, combining crime, science fiction, social and political history – and it works.

The book opens with the discovery of a murder in a small town called Unie in 2010. The head of the police investigation, Sergeant Johannes Mathebe, is a straight player and he’s not getting on well with his recently appointed assistant Constable Alet Berg. She drinks, she swears and she resents being in this small town – a punishment for having an affair with one of the senior officers during her training.

The next chapter opens in 1901, in the midst of the Boer War. British troops are clearing out the Dutch farms, taking the people they find – mostly women and children – to concentration camps. A young woman called Anna is picked out from the Bloemfontein camp for something else, something worse, something that will echo through the next 109 years in its awfulness.

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