Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker Prize winning novel about an academic spiraling from control, is a huge novel stated in just over 200 pages. And it’s spiraling from a state of controlling, not out of control, an important distinction within these taut pages. David, a 52-year old academic, finds himself on the outs of the Capetown technical school where he is an instructor by rote. He engineers his own resignation from his teaching post after instigating a sexual affair with a beautiful, teenaged student who cannot handle the situation. David is unrepentant, bold and persistent in engaging his lust for the girl, despite all of the warning signs that she is not interested and is merely passively submitting to his overtures. To him, this is of no consequence, as he views himself as under the control of a force mystical and eternal.
When David travels to spend some time out at his daughter’s farm, he discovers sides of rural life in South Africa that veer far from anything approaching bucolic. And this is where David begins to learn, how to suffer in empathy for another person, how to honestly view himself, and, just possibly, how to lay down his controlling, stifling nature. A brilliant, tense read, Disgrace begs many questions and answers none. Coetzee glances many sensitive topics without dipping heavily into them. For starters, the dynamics of rape, the mindless proliferation of animals that accompanies poverty, the startles of growing older, and the faceoff between black and white settlers in South Africa. And so many more, tucked securely within the story, but approaching the reader only after the book is closed.