“If it was to win the Booker, there would be no outcry from Bookmunch quarters” – The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

tsojThose who have read The Childhood of Jesus, or almost any other Coetzee novel if we’re being completely truthful, will be familiar with the almost frustratingly obscure nature of the story being told in the author’s latest work. Coetzee is notorious for hiding his meanings very deeply, and The Schooldays of Jesus is no different. Like five of his previous novels, though, it has been longlisted for The Man Booker Prize. So what is it that makes his fiction so appealing to the prize panels?

Well, if we start with the very basics, it might well be his prose. Even if you feel completely lost in the book’s opening hundred or so pages, you can coast along on the joy of his sumptuous sentences and effortless dialogue. He’s also very skilled when it comes to creating characters. And in David, the young protagonist of both ‘Jesus’ novels, he may have produced one of his very best. The way he mixes the enigmatic and almost otherworldly elements of this child with his youthful and innocent questions makes David the perfect mix of endearing, enraging, and enlightening. He’s as believable as characters come.

Prize panels are often also drawn by any work of fiction that markets itself as allegorical. Both ‘Jesus’ novels have done this, but working out exactly what the allegory is can be more than a little difficult. The fact that Jesus’s name appears in both titles makes it possible to believe that we’re looking at a modern retelling of his life, with future instalments perhaps to follow. There are hints that this may be the case in The Schooldays of Jesus: the discussions over knowing who David really is, the scripture that leaks into the text, the scene when he cuddles a lamb and tries to protect a duck that other children are torturing. But for every scene that hints towards this conclusion, there is another that seems too difficult to place in the context.

Chief among them is the novel’s most surprising twist. When a murder takes place at David’s dance school, we see a switch towards more populist plotting that Coetzee has so regularly eschewed. What follows in an increase in the pacing but a move away from the mystification. Not for the entire novel, of course. But for a while.

Unfortunately, the mixing of these different elements actually make this one of Coetzee’s less successful works. It becomes almost too difficult to work out what we’re reading. When a murder such as this one sneaks into proceedings, our long nurtured hankering for story and resolution can take over. Coetzee is not going to give us this. The final third becomes too unpredictable and unsatisfying and the conclusion simply peters out.

That isn’t to say that the whole novel is a disappointment, though. As has already been mentioned, David is a superb character. He is almost matched by Simon, his stepfather (of a kind). Simon shows a willingness to do anything for this boy who has somehow become his charge, and it is this element of the plot that eventually becomes the most rewarding. Through Simon, we ask questions about why we live and what we live for. And these are the questions that stick. This kind of interrogation is the Coetzee staple, and it’s when he is in this realm that he hits the heights.

Any Cop?: If it was to win the Booker, there would be no outcry from Bookmunch quarters. It would be a more deserving winner than many before it. But there is a sense of lack when reaching the end of this work, a sense which is more than likely intentional. All indicators point to there being more to come in this story. For any further ‘Jesus’ books to be a real success, though, the author might want to decide where he wants to pitch them and if answers to the questions they’ve raised are something he’s at all concerned with.

 

Fran Slater


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