What Child Is This?

The Childhood of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee
Viking, $26.95, 277 pp.

Over the summer, my local bookseller was reading through the advance galleys that had shown up at her store. After going through several much-hyped novels scheduled for fall release, she came upon The Childhood of Jesus, the new novel by J. M. Coetzee, and she told me that she found herself immediately in a different order of art—of philosophical inquiry and linguistic power.

Around 2003 I had a similar experience, when a number of major authors came out with books about professors facing sexual harassment suits. Coetzee’s Disgrace was so stark, brave, beautiful, and trenchant that the others seemed unserious by comparison. Is he the most stylistically rigorous and morally penetrating writer at work in the English language? To answer yes is to say nothing controversial. The only strike I’ve ever heard called against Coetzee is that he’s not very amusing.

The Childhood of Jesus is a strange book, engaging but inscrutable, provocative but obscure. An old man and a young boy disembark in a new country, Novilla. In a refugee camp they have learned Spanish, the language of their new country, and they have been given new names, David for the boy and Simón for the old man. On the boat from the refugee camp to Novilla, the boy has lost a letter that states his identity...

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About the Author

Gabriel Brownstein, associate professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of two works of fiction. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (W. W. Norton & Co.) won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2002. His novel The Man from Beyond (W. W. Norton & Co.) was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Novels in 2005.