The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus

J. M. Coetzee

Nobel laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner J. M. Coetzee returns with a haunting and surprising novel about childhood and destiny that is sure to rank with his classic novels.

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A major new novel from the Nobel Prize–winning author of Waiting for the Barbarians, The Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace

Nobel laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner J. M. Coetzee returns with a haunting and surprising novel about childhood and destiny that is sure to rank with his classic novels.

Separated from his mother as a passenger on a boat bound for a new land, David is a boy who is quite literally adrift. The piece of paper explaining his situation is lost, but a fellow passenger, Simón, vows to look after the boy. When the boat docks, David and Simón are issued new names, new birthdays, and virtually a whole new life.

Strangers in a strange land, knowing nothing of their surroundings, nor the language or customs, they are determined to find David’s mother. Though the boy has no memory of her, Simón is certain he will recognize her at first sight. “But after we find her,” David asks, “what are we here for?”

An eerie allegorical tale told largely through dialogue, The Childhood of Jesus is a literary feat—a novel of ideas that is also a tender, compelling narrative. Coetzee’s many fans will celebrate his return while new readers will find The Childhood of Jesus an intriguing introduction to the work of a true master.

Advance Galley Reviews

In his newest novel, J.M. Coetzee reimagines the life that Jesus might have had in a vague, almost-contemporary setting. The boy, named David, finds himself in a peculiar Spanish town with the older man Simon who raises him as they look for his mother. When Simon stumbles upon a woman whom he senses is David’s mother, he must deal with this potentially unfit woman raising the boy who has become beloved to him. Coetzee’s novel is allegorical and philosophical, exploring the ideas of the New Testament in a contemporary, often straightforward tone. At first, the novel feels somewhat gimmicky; you keep expecting to find parallels between "Childhood of Jesus" and the Bible. But this novel only borrows concepts from the Bible and is in no way concerned with remaining true to its “source.” Based on the title, I was hoping for more about the character David (and how he was meant to be a stand-in for Jesus). Alas, David remains a remarkable enigma throughout the novel, with "Childhood" focusing solely on Simon and his exploration of what a family can be. Told in a dialogue-heavy manner, Childhood" can be tedious at times. Simon’s unwavering ideas of the world are overly preachy. But Coetzee manages to present these concepts succinctly, engaging your mind in these philosophical musings. However, this style of novel will definitely not be appealing to the casual reader (in fact, much of Coetzee’s work is not terribly appealing to the casual reader).

This is the first book by J.M. Coetzee I have read and I'm not sure I would read another after finishing this one. I found it hard to immerse myself in this book as the prose is rather wooden and contrived, though I suspect this may have been a purposeful tool to show the characters' struggle with a new language. The story begins with a man and boy, Simon and David, arriving in a new country by boat from their homeland. Simon is not David's father, but has met him on the boat and vowed to help him find his "true" mother. Surprisingly, throughout the story we are offered no background to the characters, as starting a new life apparently involves forgetting what has come before. And so begins nothing. Simon becomes a stevedore to help support himself and the boy, then immediately hands the boy off to one of the first women he comes across, claiming that she is his "true mother". He has no explanation for why he believes this to be so, other than that he "knows" it. Throughout the novel, Simon has many philosophical discussions with other characters that neither ask anything of much depth nor offers any interesting answers. I had to read to the end to see if Coetzee would reveal any interesting plot twists or some genius allegory relating to the title. He did neither.

4 Stars This is an uncorrected galley provided by Penguin A man and a boy have traveled far across oceans to reach a new land. Once there they learn the native language, Spanish, and are given new names. Their ages are determined solely on physical appearance. Washed clean of their memories, like everyone who comes to new country, the man, Simon, sets out with the difficult task of finding David’s mother. On instinct alone he finds the woman he believes is the mother. The woman, who is successfully persuaded of the role, recognizes her son’s intelligent and unconventional wisdom as brilliance. The school and authorities see it negatively, however, and wishes to quell it by taking him away. Simon, who sees both points of view, must decide if he will help mother and son escape. I will start off by saying that this is the first work of this author’s that I have read and I am thoroughly impressed. My only complaint is that it did take me awhile to get with the flow of the pacing. That might just be the fact that I am unfamiliar with the author. I cannot stress enough that I enjoy reading anything that makes my brain go into overdrive and that’s exactly what just happened. First of all there are the characters and their story line which in itself is intriguing. Then there is this underlying mystery of why can’t they remember anything and where did they come from? Possibilities galore were running through my head the whole time. This is one of those novels that make you evaluate life and possibly relate to on some level. I really enjoyed it and will gladly recommend it.

Honestly, I am completely unsure why I bothered to finish the story. Nothing about the characters' pasts is ever shared with the reader. They are shipped to a place for a new start, but from where have they come and why do they need this fresh start. The new start they are given turns out to be pointless. Constantly the author eludes to certain plot twists but those are never explored in the story. The characters don't have any substance because their backgrounds are never shared with you. You never connect to the characters because of this and when I read a story, I want to feel like I am a part of the characters lives. I would not recommend this book to anyone.


More to Explore

  • Disgrace
  • Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Foe
  • Life and Times of Michael K

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