The first of J.M. Coetzee’s three fictionalised memoirs, Boyhood narrates his childhood living with his family on a housing estate outside Worcester, a small town some ninety miles from Cape Town. The book written in Coetzee’s usual style – terse, succinct, sparse – is narrated solely through the young boy’s eyes with the use of the third person narrative style.
Coetzee describes what life at the town of Worcester is like and the day-to-day goings-on in his family. We are told that ‘the nearest shops from where they live are a mile away along a bleak eucalyptus-lined road’ (p3) and that ‘there are ants in Worcester, flies, plaques of fleas’. (p4) His mother, as narrated, has ‘nothing to do all day but sweep and tidy’ (p3) because they are trapped in this box of a house on the housing estate.
As a young boy, the young Coetzee resolves to keep his life at school a tight secret from his mother. The only thing his mother shall know, as he has established as a contract in his mind, is what shall appear in his school report which he is keen to maintain as excellent.
In class, the young Coetzee does not make noise. He is always neat, does his homework and always knows the answers to questions posed in class. The reality is that he is terrified of the cane because he thinks he will die. But he puts all the blame on his mother for not beating him at home and that is why ‘he is angry at his mother for not having normal children and making them live a normal life. (p8)
Aside from blaming his mother, Coetzee also has issues with his father. In his case (his family), ‘it is the mother and children who make up the core and the husband only a contributor to the economy as a paying lodger might be’. (p11) It is so vivid that the young boy does not know the real position (or importance, so to speak) of his father in the household. But his father, we are told, lost his job in Cape Town as Controller of Letting in 1948. In fact it is as a result of his father’s loss of job that propelled their move from Cape Town to Worcester. He recalls with good memories the house they lived in at Rosebank and how he had to leave his friends at Rosebank Junior School and come to Worcester. He does not even know what to say about his father’s present work when he is asked by his friends except for the name of the company for which his father works – Standard Canners. When he is pressed about what particular work his father does at Standard Canners he says, ‘he keeps the books’ (p57) although he does not know what that means. Back in Cape Town, he would have had the luxury to say his father is a Controller of Letting.
The young Coetzee has an inkling of becoming a great man and ‘knows that if he wants to be a great man he ought to be reading serious books’. (p87) He reads at great speed and with total absorption and reads all the Enid Blyton mystery stories, all the Hardy Boys stories and all the Biggles stories. But he has a favourite – P C Wren. His father, however, thinks Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the world.
Coetzee’s Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life was first published in Great Britain by Secker & Warburg in 1997. A paperback edition was released in the US by Penguin Books in 1998.