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Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

4.3 4
by J. M. Coetzee

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The first volume of memoirs from the two-time winner of the Booker Prize.


The first volume of memoirs from the two-time winner of the Booker Prize.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The best description of a childhood I have ever read.” — The Times

“As funny, cruel and terrifying as life itself. It is also intense and elegant, clearly the product of the complex, subtle imagination which shapes Coetzee’s outstanding fiction… As austerely beautiful as would be expected of Coetzee the artist… its aloof, edgy grace and seething passion ensure the narrative is both truthful and mysterious.” — Irish Times

“A deeply-felt and utterly compelling account of a South African childhood: the narrative style is as spare and lean as the Karoo flatlands which form its backdrop.” — Daily Telegraph

The New York Times
Fiercely revealing, bluntly unsentimental. . .a telling portrait of the artist as a young man. — Michiko Kakutani
NY Times Sunday Book Review
Boyhood is not exactly a paean to literature and the life of the mind. The young Coetzee views his own imagination not merely as an escape from provincial tedium or a looming promise for the future....Written in a third-person, present-tense voice that effaces adult perspective and lends harsh immediacy to the inner agonies of the child, the memoir explores a profound ambivalence about what in most respects looks like a routine middle-class boyhood. -- Rand Richards Cooper
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
'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.
Library Journal
In this slim, interesting volume, Coetzee, a South African writer distinguished both as a novelist (Master of St. Petersburg) and an essayist (Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship), reflects about who he is and why he writes as he does. Using third-person narration, these 'scenes' read more like a novella than a true autobiography. Coetzee develops his character, a young boy on the verge of adolescence, through a richly detailed interior monolog. Trying to make sense of his place in his family, his parents' unhappy marriage, his conflicting needs for nurturance and independence from his mother, and his complicated feelings about the racially segregated society in which he lives, Coetzee struggles with basic questions of identity and purpose. The honest intensity he uses to examine his thoughts and actions leads to a foundation of self-understanding and confidence from which the writer was formed. Well recommended for writing programs and collections in general and multicultural literature. -- Denise S. Sticha, Seton Hill College Library, Greenburg, Pennsylvania

Rose Miller has it all: wealthy husband, gorgeous little girl, lavish house, great success as a novelistand a stalker who knows about her shady past.

Kirkus Reviews
A short and unsettling, deftly realized memoir of the celebrated South African writer's childhood in the hinterlands. South African memoirs, whether written by blacks or whites, tend to have a thread of sameness woven through: a sense of time and landscape as forces that irrevocably shape the soul. Coetzee (The Master of Petersburg), is no exception. Writing at the remove of the third person, he looks back at his youth in the distant dorp of Worcester, recounting how he was formed by his surroundings. This is not an eventful memoir—it's strength comes, instead, from Coetzee's nuanced, unblinking perceptions. His childhood was not unhappy in the conventional sense; the sadness and tragedies were mainly of the ordinary kind, and in his masterful depiction of them, that's what makes them so shattering. All too clearly, we see his weak, hapless father and his mother who is slowly being pushed to the side of her life—a bad marriage, abandoned career, a son whom she loves absolutely but who is too stubborn and embarrassed to reciprocate. There is the uncalibrated cruelty of children, the heedlessness of adults, Coetzee's pervading sense of difference (magnified by his Afrikaans parents' decision to raise him as English-speaking): 'Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.' The memoir leaves Coetzee on the cusp of adolescence—at the funeral of an old aunt, where he experiences a small, bittersweet epiphany that seems to herald his becoming a writer. Perhaps Coetzee has removed too much of himself—there is an unsolved distance throughout that keepsthis memoir from quite realizing the fullness of its potential. Still, this is a powerful, disillusioned portrait of childhood and how, like South Africa, it encompasses both prelapsarian innocence and unconscionable evil.

Product Details

Random House UK
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.05(w) x 7.77(h) x 0.47(d)

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Fiercely revealing, bluntly unsentimental. . .a telling portrait of the artist as a young man that illuminates the hidden source of his art." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Exceptional...a scorched tale of race, caste, shame, and—at times—hilarious bewilderment." —The New Yorker

"Tremendously readable and powerful...a masterfully told, spare and accessible memoir." —The Boston Globe


Meet the Author

J.M. Coetzee is a professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town. His many awards include the Booker Prize, twice, for The Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and for Disgrace in 1999. He is a two-time Booker Prize winner, has also won the CNA prize, South Africa’s premier literary award (three times), the Prix Etranger Femina, the Jerusalem Prize, the Lannan Literary Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.

Brief Biography

Adelaide, Australia
Date of Birth:
February 9, 1940
Place of Birth:
Cape Town, South Africa
B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969

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Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first, the thought of a memoir written in the third person came as a shock to me. I was very skeptical as to how it would turn out. Surprisingly enough, it works. In his memoir Boyhood, J.M. Coetzee tells of his childhood growing up in apartheid South Africa. And all of the struggles he faces while going through adolescence are shown through a boy we only know as ¿he¿. Because of this detachment I was able to see his childhood from his point of view, while understanding it from the perspective of someone else seeing it. The setting in which his childhood takes place greatly shapes his thoughts and emotions. As someone with mixed English and Afrikaans heritage with no real religious beliefs, he has serious trouble fitting in. After responding to a teacher¿s question of what religion he is he replies Roman Catholic because it reminds him of ancient Rome. After being hissed at by the largely Christian student body he immediately regrets his decision and hopes to be asked again the next day. ¿Then he, who has clearly made a mistake, can correct himself and be a Christian.¿ This fear of being singled out is also shown through his regret for his last name. When told he may be switched into a class with all students of Afrikaans descent, he prepares for the worst. ¿He has a plan for that day¿ he will not go to the Afrikaans classes¿Then he will lock the front door and tell his mother that he is not going back to school, that if she betrays him he will kill himself.¿ It is the incredibly structured social system of his country where everyone has a place that makes his adolescent search for his own identity that much more difficult. In his memoir Coetzee showed me a life I had never heard of in a place I have never seen, and yet it is a life I am familiar with that I can understand. While the scenes he depicts are so unique to him, he is still ultimately telling the story of a boy growing up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mary_Perkton More than 1 year ago
In recollecting his own childhood experiences, J. M. Coetzee's "Boyhood" provides an insightful examination of growing up in South Africa during the years of apartheid. The book provides a very personal account of events and is not afraid to reveal some of the harsh realities of education under apartheid. Another book with a similar theme is M. J. Poynter's "Middleburg: Going to School in Apartheid South Africa." This novel is set during the 1980's and is surprisingly funny and entertaining to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago