J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ is a novella that I have returned to time and time again over the last year. Captivatingly beautiful, like all of Coetzee’s prose, it’s no surprise that this story remained with me. The quality of the prose within these pages is so beautiful and dense that I will definitely be returning to reread sections.

The story centres around our protagonist, the Magistrate, who struggles with his own desires and morality throughout the course of his life. The story has a sense of universality: a story about oppression and the struggles of man. Eventually I pitied the protagonist on his journey to fulfil, what he believes is, his mission. The Magistrate’s journey is thought provoking and reaches the very core of consciousness, as we muse over the character’s choices and their consequences.

Deeply intimate, Coetzee beautifully depicts the relationship at the centre of this story; a relationship between the powerful and powerless. Coetzee’s description of these intimate exchanges is uncomfortable, almost poetic yet very real. As a reader, we are withheld from the thoughts of the woman – placing us in the shoes of the Magistrate. Us and him are distanced from her wants, desires and thoughts. In essence, the story of the girl is bitterly tragic and she is a victim beyond rescue:

‘I gave the girl my protection, offering in my equivocal way to be her father. But I came too late, after she had ceased to believe in fathers. I wanted to do what was right.’ (p.81)

This story is worth your time if you want to be moved, provoked and unsettled by a story. It will certainly remain with me long after I’ve put it down, when I eventually do.

(Coetzee, J.M. ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, Penguin Books, 1980).

How to be Champion – A Review.

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When Sarah Millican’s How to be Champion popped up on my audible ‘suggested for you’ tab this month, I knew instantly it would be the perfect positive injection into my otherwise quite hectic mornings. I’m currently in the latter half of my teacher training course and therefore reading for pleasure, unless I really put the effort in, can sometimes take a back seat in my daily routines. Although I adore reading, sometimes there are simply not enough hours in the day.

How to be Champion is the perfect commute audiobook. Millican has a beautifully positive outlook on life and is able to point out the silver linings when life can be testing. This book made my otherwise grey commutes through Manchester City Centre rush hour much more enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anybody who needs a little boost through their working week. Also, the beautiful thing about reading tried and trusted comedians’ novels is that you know they have a flair for writing, and How to be Champion is no exception. It’s funny, honest, relevant and will make you smile. What more do you need on a dreary wednesday morning?

Backstory – David Mitchell (2012)

mitchellThough busy with my teacher training placement, I managed to eventually find time to actually read for pleasure. As an avid fan of ‘Peep Show’, I hoped I might find a similar level of enjoyment from David Mitchell’s autobiographical work: ‘Backstory‘. I was not disappointed.

Backstory’ is beautifully honest, hilarious and heart warming. It made me aware how perfectly OK it is to not have my whole life together aged 22, as if David Mitchell wasn’t properly successful til he hit 30, that’s probably good enough for me too. Some of the anecdotes are so wonderfully awkward it’s difficult to see where Mark Corrigan ends and David Mitchell begins. Whilst reading I wondered if he intends to be as funny as he is, or if some of the humour is just incidental to his personality. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anybody looking for a funny novel to get you through a tough period at work.

Reading this book reminded me why I enjoy reading, and of the love of reading I am trying to pass onto the children I teach. This made me actively aware that to instill a love of reading, I must allow myself time to indulge in it myself. This is something I will intend to do more frequently.

The Cellar – Minette Walters (2015)

Minette Walters is an author I find myself returning to time and time again without disappointment. I picked up a copy of The Cellar from a small bookstore in an idyllic, picturesque Cornish town – a stark contrast to the damp, claustrophobic cellar which resides within the pages of this dark novel.

     The novel centres around the Songoli family, their home and their mistreated slave girl, Muna, whom they lock in their cellar. Unfortunately for her captors, Muna is highly intelligent and bloodthirsty for revenge.

     The secret the Songolis share, Muna’s cellar, holds its own secrets. Muna’s cellar whispers to her, comforts her, corrupts her, and gives her power. She believes ‘The Devil’ resides within its walls, and this Devil is capable not only of putting dark thoughts in her head, but it is also able to drag people down into the darkness.

     The novel ends: “Darkness hides. / Darkness deceives. / Darkness is within. / Waiting.” This implies both that Darkness is autonomous and controlling Muna, and that the Darkness is within Muna herself. It’s unclear if Muna’s cellar contains a poltergeist, as it is more reasonable to suggest Muna has been affected by years of solitude and abuse.

     The tables do turn for Muna, and every misfortune which befalls the Songoli family gives Muna increasing power and agency. My sympathy, as a reader, was deeply rooted with Muna, due to the extent of her childhood abuse. Muna’s revenge, for me, reached a climax when she is described as lying in Yetunde’s bed, watching her television, eating her sugary sweets whilst her captor, Yetunde, sits rotting in the cellar. The moment is gratifying, as Muna’s revenge is complete.

     Muna reminds the Songolis she is a product of their treatment: 

‘I am what you and Princess have made me, Master. The feelings I have are the ones you’ve taught me. If they aren’t human the fault is yours.’ (The Cellar, Minette Walters (London: Penguin, 2015) p.60.

Muna is only exposed to fear, pain and resentment so these are the only things she knows. Muna’s world exists within the Songoli house, and she finds comfort in the house’s walls.  Ultimately Muna uses the house, explicitly her cellar, to facilitate her revenge.  

     Overall, I would recommend this dark novel to any fan of revenge thrillers. But be warned: it is gruesome. 

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan (1990).

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan is the first novel in The Wheel of Time series. The series has seen massive success, and from reading this first novel it is clear why: the development of this magical, fantasy realm is vast and detailed.

Many of the concepts in the novel are only a step away from our own world, which works because it makes the fantasy world familiar. For example, the travelling people live by ‘The Way of the Leaf’ which parallels Daoism, and the priority of harmony with nature. Also, ‘The Pattern’ ties Fate into the novel as The Pattern is autonomous, though bends and changes with the three boys at the centre of it. There are lots of different concepts in Jordan’s fantasy world to get your head around, though there is a glossary to help you navigate this novel. 

The antagonists in this novel are brilliant. The Trollocs are terrifying and their descriptions were wonderfully visceral. Ba’alzamon has eyes of fire and is able to enter your dreams and drive men insane. The Dark Wind inside the Ways is a giant all consuming black cloud which contains it’s victims screams. There’s also men with no faces. I loved it.

I read this novel based on a recommendation from a friend of mine. I began reading The Eye of the World in November, and it has taken till the end of May for me to turn the last page. Yet, the story is as dense as the novel is long. The length of the novel allows for plenty of character development, and sets the scene for the series of novels which follow. For those reasons, and the many nights I’ve spent escaping to this fantasy world whilst reading from my own bed, I can forgive Jordan for stretching this novel to over 700 pages. Due to this novel’s length I opted for the Kindle version for convenience, which I didn’t regret as I love to read whilst travelling. 

Will I read the next book in the series? Probably. But there are so many other wonderful novels out there to explore. I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy an adventure, as I appreciated that aspect of it. 

Summertime – J. M. Coetzee 

Today I finished reading another beautiful novel by J. M. Coetzee. The stark, honest novel, Summertime, delves into the life of John Coetzee, the character named after the author. Summertime challenges every ‘The Author is dead’ ideology ingrained into my mind, as the author is very much a part of this novel and to completely separate John Coetzee (the character) from J. M. Coetzee (the author) would be a mistake. 

I adored the character of John Coetzee. He is often criticised, humble, seemingly ordinary and tragically lonely. He seeks love, though doesn’t obtain it. I found his account from Adriana particularly tragic and desperately sad as it reveals a loneliness and desperate side to Coetzee’s character. 

I appreciated Coetzee’s philosophy of teaching. Particularly the idea that the teacher should be worthy of the pupil, and the idea that students can sense when a teacher lacks passion for their subject. Teacher and student relationships feature in Disgrace also, seeming to be an recurring theme across Coetzee’s works. 

Overall, Summertime was a beautiful read. I would recommend this book and this writer to anybody who will listen. 

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

“Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn’t expect.”

  monster.jpgThis book was recommended to me by a Waterstones employee, who assured me that the book was ‘much darker’ than a children’s novel. Despite the novel being pitched at a child audience, I would agree that it was much darker than I anticipated.

A Monster Calls is a deeply emotional novel which deals with the grief and suffering of a child. The child, Conor O’Malley, is visited every night by a monster typical of most children’s imaginations. However, despite the monster being terrifying enough to scare most children, Conor’s fears are rooted in his reality, not the monster outside his window.

Wise beyond his years, Conor faces the reality that not all stories have a happy ending, and the truth that his mother is very sick. We are never told explicitly Conor’s mum’s diagnosis, just that the treatments were only working until they weren’t. Against Conor’s wishes, everybody knows Conor’s mum is sick. His teachers, his friends and even his bullies. Conor is so isolated by everybody treating him differently that the only thing that makes him fell less numb are the punches from his bullies, until even they stop coming. Conor’s pain is so beautifully depicted and heartbreakingly vivid this book had me crying on the rush hour train. I would fully recommend this novel to anybody who enjoys a novel that delivers a full emotional experience. You will not be dissappointed.