Book club discussion: “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee

I had never read anything by J.M. Coetzee before. I am not going to lie, I had never even heard the name Coetzee until book club members suggested this book to read. I knew it was going to be a good one by how many members recommended it. What I didn’t expect was how damn dark and depressing it would be. This book is not easy to read, and can definitely be a trigger.

Tonight when we met to discuss the book, the members who suggested reading the book apologized because they had forgotten how dark it was. Yet, despite that, everyone thought the book was well done.

According to the summary:

At fifty-two, Professor David Lurie is divorced, filled with desire, but lacking in passion. When an affair with a student leaves him jobless, shunned by friends, and ridiculed by his ex-wife, he retreats to his daughter Lucy’s smallholding. David’s visit becomes an extended stay as he attempts to find meaning in his one remaining relationship. Instead, an incident of unimaginable terror and violence forces father and daughter to confront their strained relationship and the equality complicated racial complexities of the new South Africa. 

If there is one thing to note about this book, is that despite it being written in 1999, many of the occurrences in this book were very much relevant today, especially the misogynistic qualities in David. He pretty much forces himself on a student because he thinks he has a right to.

“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.” 

I kid you not, that was his reasoning. All I could think when I read that was, “Seriously?! WTF?! Ugh!” I was so disgusted. Many of the members agreed, calling him a “slimeball” and more. One member, who was reading this for the second time, said that she didn’t recall how disgusting he was but that given everything going on with the current #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, her views had shifted since first reading the book. It made his character all the more prevalent.

I thought it was pretty ironic that David pretty much forces the affair with the student at the beginning of the book and doesn’t think anything of it, but then later when his own daughter gets attacked, he is absolutely horrified. It is all the matter of perspective, I guess. David’s view shifts from the one doing it to the one observing it being done on someone he loves. Though I will say that his daughter’s attack is much worse. Just fair warning, if you plan to read the book.

What I and many members didn’t understand is why the women in this book were all passive. The student simply allows David to do what he wants to her without objecting and even encourages it at one point. It seems that she only reports him because she is forced to by her boyfriend and father. Then David’s daughter refuses to report the attack or leave the house, despite knowing that it could happen again. The females in the group said they would have left the first chance they got. Though I understand that Lucy didn’t want the men who did what they did to win, where is the line drawn in the sand?

The racial undertones of this books were subtle but startling. When Lucy finds herself in a precarious position later in the book, she agrees to marry her neighbor who is African. She knows that as a white, single, lesbian she is in danger of being attacked again, if not worse, all because she owns property that some would argue is not rightfully hers. By marrying her neighbor Petrus, who has two other wives, she has a form of protection. He can have her land as long she can continue to live where she lives. Some members thought this was her way trying to apologize for what white people had done, a form of reparations.

Many of us thought that the neighbor was the reason for the attack, not to be malicious but to get her to leave so he can own the land. At the beginning Petrus owns just the barn and a little plot that it sits on at the far end of Lucy’s property. But throughout the book, he begins to expand those boundaries. It’s almost as if he knows that there is nothing Lucy can do about it and so he patiently waits her out.

Disgrace, the title of this book, is fitting because it is portrayed throughout the book, from David’s disgrace from the university to his own daughter’s disgrace after the attack. Coetzee has a way of describing the human condition at its worst. You can understand each of the characters but at the same time all you want is to do away with them.

Our group spent nearly two hours discussing this book. There are so many layers that it is hard to write about them in one post and to be honest, I am still trying to wrap my head around everything. It’s only 200 pages but there is so much in it. It’s one of those books that you have to read multiple times to fully grasp what the author is trying to convey. But there is one line at the start of the book that really got my attention and I will end this post with it.

“The one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn, learn nothing.”



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