cover image Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

J. M. Coetzee. Viking Books, $22.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-670-87220-6

""He thinks of Afrikaners as people in a rage all the time because their hearts are hurt. He thinks of the English as people who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well."" The ""he"" in this bitter, brooding childhood memoir is Booker Prize winner Coetzee himself (Waiting for the Barbarians), who uses his early recollections to probe the hidden anxieties of middle-class white South Africa after WWII. The memoir begins in elementary school, when Coetzee's Anglophile Afrikaner family leaves Cape Town after the latest professional failure of the author's father. An attorney and the poor relation of respectable farmers, the alcoholic elder Coetzee takes a humiliating accounting job in the small town of Worcester, where young Coetzee begins to learn the cruel distinctions of class, ethnicity and race that govern his parents' lives and learns, at the same time, to despise his father and fear his mother, a frustrated, resentful schoolteacher--feelings that the memoirist reproduces unsoftened by the intervening decades. What is most impressive, and oppressive, about this portrait of the artist as a young man is Coetzee's refusal to forgive his parents for their prejudices, their pettiness, their hatred of each other. If there is a culprit outside the family circle, it is a colonial shame and unease as described by Coetzee: the delicate web of class pretensions that overlay and hid from white view the brute fact of apartheid. (Oct.)