Disovering JM Coetzee.

After reading earlier this year, that JM Coetzee has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his work ‘The Schooldays of Jesus,’ I decided it was high time I began to read some of his work.  Given that he has won the Man Booker Prize twice, for ‘Life and Times of Michael K’ (1983) and ‘Disgrace’ in (1999) he could be the first writer to win it a record three times, if he wins this year.

I borrowed a beautiful hard back copy of ‘Disgrace’ from my father’s vast collection of books.  I now understand why Coetzee is so highly respected, if somewhat controversial in his native South Africa.  His prose is exquisite, and he makes it look effortless which is all the more incredible.

Disgrace tells the story of university professor David Lurie, who loses his job after having an affair with one of his students.   The student in question Melanie Isaacs does not initially seem to reject his advances, and although the sex may be far from passionate on her part she does not object. However, she later brings a charge against him, which leads to him leaving the university in disgrace.

He goes to stay on his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape, where he helps her take care of her stray dogs and he helps out on the farm.   He meets Petrus, who describes himself as ‘the gardener and the dog man’ but we soon come to realize that he is much more than that and he has plans and plenty of them.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but suffice to say what happens next on the farm will change Lucy and David’s lives forever.

A difficult and at times highly depressing novel, through David and Lucy’s complex relationship, we see who holds the power in a still racially segregated South Africa.

Coetzee uses the animals as a way to show the cruelty of man’s inhumanity to man.  At the dog shelter where he helps remove the dogs who have been put down, the owner says:

‘Yes we eat up a lot of animals in this country…It doesn’t seem to do us much good. I’m not sure how we will justify it to them.’

David Lurie feels shame and guilt over the on-going savagery shown towards animals throughout, and his pain is visceral, although he ends up feeling useless to prevent it.

The characters in the novel seemed to me to be somewhat resigned to their fate, in particular Lucy, who doesn’t put up any kind of fight at all to change her tragic circumstances.  It is as if the winds of change have come, and they are utterly powerless to stop them or make their lives better.

There are power struggles and then there is cruelty and horror, and Coetzee shows the thin line between the two sadly continues to exist in South Africa.

A brilliant novel, but not for the faint hearted.   A novel that stayed with me long after I had finished reading it, and one which, in my view, thoroughly deserved all the plaudits it received.

I have not yet decided which of his novels to read next.  I will let you know.  Any suggestions?





Review of The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

In June I had the pleasure of going to the Hay Festival, where I went to hear Amy Liptrot talk about her memoir.  I finally got around to reading it during the last fortnight.  This memoir is about her survival from alcoholism in London to sobriety in Orkney, and how, by immersing herself fully into the harshness and beauty of nature in her homeland, she learnt to heal and live again, revitalized and renewed.

Amy Liptrot was brought up in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland.  She grew up on a farm on the edge of a wide area of land known as the Outrun, that led to the cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean.  Her family life was not serene.  Her father suffered from Bi- Polar disorder and her mother joined an evangelical religious group.

Despite her love of the wild nature around her as a child, Amy Liptrot yearned to experience city life, and she sought to escape Orkney at the first available opportunity. After studying in Edinburgh, she moved to London looking for excitement and a more glamorous life.  What began as drinking at parties and on nights out, soon spiralled into habitual drinking and then heavy drinking, and before long Amy was in the depths of alcoholism.

Initially she managed to hold down jobs, but eventually her drinking became out of control, and following a devastating break-up (due to her drinking), she booked herself into rehab.  Following her time in rehab she found herself unexpectedly drawn back home to the Orkney islands.

Liptrot writes so eloquently, both about her struggles with alcohol, (about which she is brutally honest) and her love and knowledge of her beloved Orkney. A mixture of nature writing and self-reflection gives this memoir a unique twist.  The author’s knowledge of nature and the wild life on the islands of Orkney is impressive, and I found the excerpts on the seabirds and animal life in the small Scottish islands fascinating and evocative.  The weather is brutal in this part of the world and yet for the author it is not experienced as such, but instead is exhilarating and energizing.  A new healthier drug.

Her journey to sobriety is a daily struggle, but with the help of friends, family and a new focus, she gains strength from the beauty of nature around her.

My favourite part of the book is the chapter entitled ‘The Corncrake Wife.’  A few months after arriving back in Orkney, she is employed by the RSPB to count and study corncrakes – a rare and endangered bird species on the Orkney Islands.  So while everyone else is asleep, she drives around the island listening out for the call of the Corncrake:

“My job is to locate every calling male – only the males call – in Orkney.  I appeal for public reports, asking people to call my ‘corncrake hotline’ if they hear one.  My answerphone message contains a recording of the call so that people can compare it with what they have heard.”

Liptrot’s honesty gives this memoir a searing authenticity, and for anyone who has ever struggled with any kind of addiction, I am sure they found much with which they could identify.  Her nature writing is elegant, and the harshness of nature is reflected in her own struggle with herself.  She cannot beat it; she has to accept it.

As she settles in Papay (a small island north of the main island of Orkney) for four months and integrates into the community, she talks about the possibility of romance when sober: “I wonder if I can be cheeky or flirtatious without booze. If I master this I could be unstoppable. In the past months I’ve been stifled by bruised confidence and anxiety, but these things take time. I’m gradually learning to say things sober that other people wait to say drunk.”

This memoir has just won The Wainwright Golden Beer Prize, a prize for nature and travel writing in the UK.   I am delighted for her, as I think she is not only a beautiful writer, but a courageous and worthy winner.  I highly recommend this memoir.