Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life



The Pequod Review:

Boyhood is one of J.M. Coetzee’s best and most accessible books, a fictionalized autobiography that describes his life growing up in provincial South Africa. Told in the third person — an effective technique that emphasizes the way the adult and the child are fundamentally different people — the book has rich and intense scenes of childhood and adolescence:

It is a summer evening, cool after the long, hot day. He is in the public gardens, where he has been playing cricket with Greenberg and Goldstein: Greenberg, who is solid in class but not good at cricket; Goldstein, who has large brown eyes and wears sandals and is quite dashing. It is late, well past seven-thirty. Save for the three of them, the gardens are deserted. They have had to give up their cricket: it is too dark to see the ball. So they have wrestling fights as if they were children again, rolling about on the grass, tickling each other, laughing and giggling. He stands up, takes a deep breath. A surge of exultation passes through him. He thinks, "I have never been happier in my life. I would like to be with Greenberg and Goldstein forever."

They part. It is true. He would like to live like this forever, riding his bicycle through the wide and empty streets of Worcester in the dusk of a summer's day, when all the other children have been called in and he alone is abroad, like a king.

Here he describes the boy’s emerging sexuality:

He prefers tight shorts to loose shorts. The clothes his mother buys for him are always too loose. He likes to gaze at slim, smooth brown legs in tight shorts. Best of all he loves the honeytan legs of boys with blond hair. The most beautiful boys, he is surprised to find, are in the Afrikaans classes, as are the ugliest, the ones with hairy legs and Adam's apples and pustules on their faces. Afrikaans children are almost like Coloured children, he finds, unspoiled and thoughtless, running wild, then suddenly, at a certain age, going bad, their beauty dying within them.

Beauty and desire: he is disturbed by the feelings that the legs of these boys, blank and perfect and inexpressive, create in him. What is there that can be done with legs beyond devouring them with one's eyes? What is desire for?

The naked sculptures in the Children's Encyclopaedia affect him in the same way: Daphne pursued by Apollo; Persephone ravished by Dis. It is a matter of shape, of perfection of shape.

He has an idea of the perfect human body. When he sees that perfection manifested in white marble, something thrills inside him; a gulf opens up; he is on the edge of falling. Of all the secrets that set him apart, this may in the end be the worst. Among all these boys he is the only one in whom this dark erotic current runs; among all this innocence and normality, he is the only one who desires.

Boyhood is a short book, but it is precise, honest and extremely well-written. It is clear that a lot of work went into its construction, and the result is at least as good as J.M. Coetzee’s best novels.