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Age of Iron by J. M. Coetzee

Age of Iron (1990)

by J. M. Coetzee

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A short and seemingly conventional novel, the more you think about the plot the stranger it is though. ( )
  Litblog | Dec 19, 2014 |
Mrs. Curran is dying of cancer. Opposed all her life to the system of apartheid but sheltered from the realities of the cruelty imposed, she is now faced with results that the system has brought. As black townships are burnt, she faces the cancer that is killing her country, turning the souls of the young to iron and ravaging her body. This is not a happy uplifting book but one that makes you think and examine life and injustice. Coetzee has become one of my favourite authors and I’ll certainly be reading more of his work in the future. ( )
  mlbelize | Jan 27, 2014 |
Reading this book felt like a vision of the end of days. As the apartheid regime in South Africa was fighting its final losing battles, Mrs Curren, a classics professor, received a terminal diagnosis. A true stoic, she thanked her physician and made her way home, where she anticipated being able to break down in private. The professor had lived alone for many years. Her marriage was long over, her only child had married and moved to the US. Privacy was not to be, however. Arriving home, she discovered a vagrant and his dog had set up a shelter in the alley next to her garage.

"Two things, then, in the space of an hour: the news, long dreaded, and this reconnaissance, this other annunciation. The first of the carrion birds, prompt, unerring...The scavengers of Cape Town, whose number never dwindles... Cleaners-up after the feast. Flies, dry-winged, glazen-eyed, pitiless. My heirs."

Wishing to keep her mental and physical pain to herself, but desperately wanting to confide in someone, Mrs Curren took the scholarly route, deciding to pour out thoughts, events and feelings in a journal/letter to her daughter. There were no plans to notify that daughter of the illness and prognosis; she merely hoped that the missive would somehow be sent to her once she herself had died.

Through her letter we see her inevitable deterioration, the struggle to manage pain yet stay alert, her battle to come to terms with her own demise, and the idea of her physical world continuing on without her. This personal struggle is lived against the background of a city and country descending into chaos. Accepting the need to have someone around, if only nominally, she allowed the vagrant Vercueil to stay. Vercueil was like a feral dog, happy to have food and shelter, occasionally accepting of company, but always living on his own terms. Knowing she will never discover if he carries out her request or not, she eventually entrusted him with the mailing of the letter.

There were others living on the property. Mrs Curren also had house help in the form of Florence, a black woman from the townships. Florence had been away when Vercueil appeared and it seems unlikely he would have been allowed to squat had she been there. Florence lived in the back with her two young daughters. Soon her fifteen year old son also moved in, for the schools had closed and she would not leave him alone in the townships to get into trouble.

Trouble came to them though. Mrs Curren learned far more than she had ever imagined or wanted to know about the impact of apartheid on those surrounding her. While she had always been against the regime, seeing its collapse at first hand in her own domain challenged many of her long held beliefs about the very basis of society. Knowing she did not have the time or resources to think these things through is one more devastation for someone who had always been able to hold things together.

Coetzee's constrained writing style combined with Mrs Curren's restraint, makes her a far more powerful character than a more emotional person would have been in the same circumstances, for loss of self control is that much more of a betrayal to someone who had always reined herself in and curtailed her feelings. And just as Mrs Curren sought to conceal her illness from her daughter, chronicling it in secret, so the South African state sought to conceal its demise from newspapers, television and radio, while carrying out its own clandestine operations. This pairing of individual and national doom gives a picture of decline that's impossible to forget.

"Did these things really happen? Yes, these things happened. There is no more to be said about it. "
4 vote SassyLassy | Oct 25, 2013 |
A J.M. Coetzee book that I have had for a while.

Mrs. Curren is living alone, dying from cancer. As she sees the end of her life, she finally faces up to the reality around her, in the final days of Apartheid. It all starts with a homeless black man setting up shop on her property, Vercueil makes Curren feel uncomfortable, forcing her to see what has always been there. Curren writes to her daughter, long since living in the States, a sort of self-justification of her life.

As with his other books, Coetzee scrutinises South African society, the reality of life under Apartheid - the racism, the violence, but also the humanity. Curren could be many of us. Coetzee gets under the reader's skin, forcing them to think, for example - are those who don't actively condemn injustice as culpable as those who perpetrate it? ( )
  soffitta1 | Mar 23, 2012 |
J.M. Coetzee is slowly but surely becoming a favorite author of mine. His prose is so carefully paced and lovingly based in detail that each book reads nearly as a collection of paintings and images as much as a novel. Her work is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje's novels at times, and I find that I'm consistently fascinated with the characters created in each tale--this was no exception.

In the course of what is primarily a single long letter to a far-away daughter, and a letter which the author sees as a goodbye, Coetzee here weaves a narrator based in a single woman's struggle to make peace with her own body's deterioration and her interaction with a reluctant set of companions. Each character is so carefully created as to be full and believable, even in the little dialogue that readers experience. About politics, about love, about struggle, and about the body's paths forward in an eclectic world, this novel is a quiet masterpiece well worth the time. ( )
1 vote whitewavedarling | Jul 2, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140275657, Paperback)

In Cape Town, South Africa, an old woman is dying of cancer. A classics professor, Mrs. Curren has been opposed to the lies and brutality of apartheid all her life, but has lived insulated from its true horrors. Now she is suddenly forced to come to terms with the iron-hearted rage that the system has wrought. In an extended letter addressed to her daughter, who has long since fled to America, Mrs. Curren recounts the strange events of her dying days. She witnesses the burning of a nearby black township and discovers the bullet-riddled body of her servant's son. A teenage black activist hiding in her house is killed by security forces. And through it all, her only companion, the only person to whom she can confess her mounting anger and despair, is a homeless man, an alcoholic, who one day appears on her doorstep.

Brilliantly crafted and resonant with metaphor, Age of Iron is "a superbly realized novel whose truths cut to the bone." (The New York Times Book Review)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:46 -0400)

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As an elderly woman's health deteriorates, so does the condition of her country, South Africa.

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