Review Blog

Jun 06 2013

The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee

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Text, 2013. ISBN 9781846557262. 324p
(Age: M15+) Highly recommended. This one's not strictly for teenage readers, but the haunting new novel from Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee, has a place in a YA collection especially if philosophy is on the curriculum.
Simon, a middle-aged man, assumes guardianship of a small boy who has become separated from his mother aboard a refugee boat. Together they resettle in an unknown land where only Spanish is spoken. The pair comply with cordial instructions to forget their past lives but Simon seems to miss the passion of his old life. He fulfills his promise to 'find' David's mother, with mixed results, but he never doubts Ines' arbitrary claim to the boy.
Ultimately, David is threatened with a reformatory school because he seems unable to learn mainstream methods. A part of Simon admits that the sensitive boy may be teaching him. He describes his doubts about David's 'difference' to Eugenio, his co-worker; 'While I was in hospital with nothing else to do, I tried as a mental exercise to see the world through David's eyes... put two apples before him. What does he see? An apple and an apple: not two apples, not the same apple twice just an apple and an apple.'
The characters wrestle with various big questions using the musings of many unnamed philosophers. But as with all good literature, there may not be any simple answers.
Considering the title and presence of Christian symbolism, this could be a modern nativity story. On an obvious level, it may be a commentary on the challenges of refugees. Alternative readings are equally enigmatic. Nevertheless, Cootzee cannot be accused of using the contrivance of the novel to entertain. Rather the fable haunts us despite the banal style and we develop a strong trust in Simon to throw more light on those occasions which are not as they seem.
Deborah Robins

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