Mrs. Curren is dying of breast cancer, and, worse yet, she is a liberal-minded white Woman Living in South Africa during Apartheid. The novel is mostly an expression of her thoughts in the form of a letter to her daughter, who is married with children in the U.S. and unaware of her mother’s terminal condition. A homeless alcoholic, Mr. Vercueil, who, along with his dog, has camped out near her house, becomes Mrs. Curren’s handyman, companion, and caregiver. Her black maid, Florence, has a teenage son who has joined the resistance effort. Mrs. Curren is torn between her enormous revulsion at the government’s enforcement of apartheid and her concern for the safety of the young people involved in the rebellion. She would like to make a statement against apartheid by perhaps hastening her own death in a violent manner, but that would solve nothing. The fact that she has taken on a homeless alcoholic as her confidant is a testament to her extreme loneliness and desperation. Vercueil, for his part, seems neutral politically and unredeemable socially, but he’s all she has, and he’s better than nothing. In fact, he’s a lot better, because he seems completely non-judgmental, and a family member would probably have a lot to say about an elderly woman living alone and consuming vast quantities of pain meds. Mrs. Curren is a character whose outrage is so palpable that I felt immense empathy for her. In fact, this is my first Coetzee novel, published in 1990 while apartheid was very much still in effect, and it obviously represents the South African author’s personal stand against apartheid, using the power of the pen to try to enact positive change. I expect that Mrs. Curren’s dilemma and guilt come straight from his own personal conscience, grappling with a situation that was impossible to bear and simultaneously dangerous to oppose.
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