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Disgrace - J. M. Coetzee

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      09.03.2011 22:29
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      Highly recommended

      This review is an extract from a larger piece of work I wrote whilst at University - so would appreciate if it is not reused in any form.

      As a book, and a commentary on contemporary (1999) South African society, Disgrace has been lauded as one of the best; it has won the CNA Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the prestigious Man Booker Prize, to name but a few. However, despite its evident literary success, it has been criticised for presenting a vision of contemporary South Africa 'that will comfort no one, no matter what race, nationality or viewpoint' (The Complete Review 1999-2009).
      Coetzee uses empty prose to great effect, and though he writes without flourish or stimulating description he depicts the cold hard reality of his post-Apartheid South Africa perfectly. 'What transforms Disgrace from a good, compelling book into a work of brilliance is its allegorical reach' (The Complete Review 1999-2009). Coetzee's depiction of contemporary South Africa depends less on obvious commentary and more on deeper analysis. He makes his characters metonymic by creating a link between their humanity and how their roles in South African society are changing; he 'explores the troubling tensions between generations, sexes, and races' (The Complete Review 1999-2009).
      Arguably Coetzee has got it spot on, if one remembers that he is writing around 1999. White South African's, and Afrikaner men especially, have lost the political-power and social-influence they once had and are struggling to find a place within a new social-fabric that seems diametrically opposed to them; however, slowly, they are beginning to adapt, as personified by David Lurie's partial recovery. Alongside this, the relationship between the two schools of white social-thought are characterized well in David and Lucy; one is still struggling to understand the situation and wants to be involved, looking back to the past as an escape, whilst the new generation merely wants to survive, to come to terms with what they owe as penance to continue living in South Africa. Disgrace also covers the difference between the political and economic revolution, showing that whilst Africans are quickly adapting to their new positions of power and influence the majority are still living in poverty; through Lucy's rape and burglary it also unveils a darker understanding that under this situation, where the minority have lots and the majority have little, peaceful coexistence cannot last and eventually it will come to point where the majority will take what they want. Also shown is that crime, rape, car theft, HIV/AIDS, and poverty are all major issues in South Africa. For me though, however naively optimistic it is to admit, Disgrace conveys an element hope in the form of Lucy's unborn baby; begat of rape and abuse, it signifies hope that a new South Africa can be born out of the violence and disgrace that preceded it.

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      06.06.2010 19:14
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      One must read summer novel

      'After an impulsive affair with a student, David Lurie is forced to resign from the University where he teaches poetry. He retreats to his daughter's isolated smallholding in the South African bush, where, for a time, the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting, and a savage attack is to bring into relief all the fault lines in his life.'

      *Synopsis from J. M Coetzee'z 'Disgrace' published in 2009 by Vintage Books*

      The book begins with Cape Town University Professor David Lurie entering into costly illicit relations with Soraya a South African escort agency worker who later rejects him, leaving the agency to go and care for her two boys. Lurie takes this rejection rather personally and after tracking her down, and a little bit of stalking, is warned to step back to avoid trouble. As result Lurie seeks solace in the arms of Melissa a student enrolled on his poetry course at University. At times their secret affair appears consensual however increasingly within the novel this affair becomes more and more one sided as Melissa begins to reject Lurie's advances resulting in a awkward rape where Melissa appears resigned to the fact that 'this is Africa'! Shamed by his situation, after he is found out by his University, Lurie leaves Cape Town and moves to stay with his daughter, Lucy in Salem. Although life in Salem at first seems peaceful and good for Lurie it is not long before their idyllic existence is threatened...

      Coetzee's 'Disgrace' is one of the best books I have read in a long while...and being a literature student I read a lot of books! His account of post-apartheid South Africa is poignant, often upsetting and forces you to question many of your own motivations. When I first started reading the book I was a little put-off, the first few chapters are pretty much sex-scenes and coupling this first impression with the view I received from the synopsis I thought I'd made a bad choice. It wasn't long though before the tone of the story changed and before long Lurie was moving in with his daughter and the novels pace completely changed from then on I could not put the book down and must have read it within a couple of days before going back to study it again.

      Coetzee's novel not only offers insight into human lusts and motivations but also offers up painful impressions of racial tensions and anarchy within post-colonial South-Africa, sadly the remnants of which lingers even today. With a nice front-cover and gripping story-line I would recommend this book to you as one, of your undoubted many, summer reads!

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        06.04.2010 14:38
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        Changing lives in modern South Africa

        The book was awarded the Booker Prize in 1999, the year it was published. It is a fascinating read bringing forth a tale of both South Africa in recent times but also of a middle aged man going through changes in his life. The lead character is David Lurie, 52, a twice-divorced Professor of English whose subject and the material he uses are in decline and losing popularity, among students and colleagues. But he is also disillusioned. He has plans to write a play about Byron drawing on years of study and research but whilst working at the university does not have the enthusiasm to make a start, instead focusing on his relationships with women.

        He is also quite set in his ways and when forced to change his attitude, refuses. However, he visits his daughter Lucy, who has a farm in the country, and slowly he does make changes, he does adapt to a different world. His world where the white man ruled has gone and this is one of the startling realities that the character has to get to grips with.

        I won't give the plot away, but David Lurie does meet with disgrace and it is how his character deals with this and changes to his circumstances that kept me reading to the last page.

        The book is well written and relatively short at 218 pages, such that for a 'literary' book you don't get bogged down in hidden meanings or long words.

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          23.03.2010 12:58
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          A thought-provoking read from a master author

          David Lurie, a Professor at a university in Cape Town, has been divorced twice and now works out his sexual feelings by paying for a prostitute once a week. Then she decides to move on and David is left bereft, until he comes across one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. Before long, he is having an affair with her, although the affair seems very one-sided, and ends abruptly when Melanie reports him for sexual harrassment. Refusing to apologise to the satisfaction of the university authorities, his employment is terminated and he is forced to re-think his life. He moves to his daughter's smallholding for a while, where she grows vegetables and flowers and looks after dogs. Nevertheless, he is aware that their relationship is strained, and, after an event that leaves both of them appreciating that South Africa is undergoing a momentous change, it is time to decide whether to move on or stay.

          The book is set in 1990s South Africa, after Apartheid, and, although the emphasis initially seems to be on the characters, it is clear they are just a device to represent the change in South Africa during that time. David seems to have experienced little change in Cape Town, although there is a suggestion that the prostitute he was sleeping with moved on because of a sudden improvement in her lifestyle, presumably due to the end of Apartheid. However, when he moves in with his daughter, the social changes are very obvious. A man that Lucy Lurie employed to look after the dogs builds a smallholding on what used to be Lucy's land, and the change of power is slowly shifting in his favour. This change is further emphasized when two men and a boy, all black, arrive at Lucy's smallholding, raping and pillaging their way through the house, and then stealing David's car.

          The book caused quite a stir when it was published in 1999. For a start, it won the Booker Prize in 1999 and has since been praised by many literary critics. Secondly, it received a critical reception, particularly in South Africa, for being racist and deliberately evading the real situation in South Africa. The racist element comes about because the three intruders were all black and there seems to be a suggestion that the social change as a result of the end of Apartheid are not welcomed by David Lurie, although his daughter is a lot more accepting. However, Coetzee uses symbolism to potentially suggest that this is not the case. Firstly, although he refuses to apologize properly to the university officials, he does later apologize to Melanie's family, which could be construed as an apology for his race, or at least shows that he is moving on. Then at the end of the book, he lets go of something that could represent letting go of his philandering ways and the old society. I suspect different people will see different things in the book, but that is my take.

          The fact that the characters aren't the most important part of the book was a blessing for me, because I wasn't keen on any of them. David comes across as obsessed by sex, treating women as objects, not people, and behaving obtusely when he is accused of sexual harrassment. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, is strained, apparently because he hasn't put a great deal of effort into it, despite the fact that Lucy left her mother in Holland to be with her father in South Africa. And he seems particularly keen to force his own ideals in life onto his daughter. Coetzee has obviously done a good job of building up his character - it is hard to really dislike a literary figure you don't know much about - nevertheless, it did make it hard to feel sorry for what happened to him.

          Lucy, although I did feel some sympathy for her, was also hard to really like. Her reasons for staying on the smallholding after the departure of her lover seemed flimsy and very hard to understand. She seems to be content to let her smallholding be taken over without attempting to argue and her refusal to report her rape because of the repercussions, while refusing to leave and start again somewhere else was confusing. She appears to be content to stay where she is, slowly growing old and fat, without seeing if life could offer her something else in another location. She may have had her reasons, but they weren't really explained in the book and I was left feeling frustrated by her lack of action. Again though, the fact that I found her behaviour odd shows that Coetzee did a good job of bringing her character to life. It's just that I would have preferred to understand her as well.

          I've previously read Slow Man by J M Coetzee, and was surprised at how easy it was to read. If anything, this is even easier. From the content, I've probably given the impression that the book is hard-going - that actually couldn't be further from the truth. It is written in the present tense, which is not a style that I usually like, but it worked well here, because the story was being told as I read it, making it somehow easier to picture. The language flows beautifully and although it is well-written, it isn't full of long words - just exactly what is needed to make the author's meaning clear. The book is only just over 200 pages in all, and the chapters are short, so I found myself reading a quarter of the book at a time.

          The one thing that I really didn't like about the story was the inclusion, mainly towards the end, of the descriptions of an opera that David is writing about Byron and one of his lovers - Teresa Guiciolli. Focussing on Teresa, it shows how she has been left in the lurch by Byron, in the same way he did his child. There's obviously supposed to be a point to this inclusion - perhaps it's representing the fact that David knows he's a complete pillock for having treated women and his daughter so badly for so long. However, I just didn't think it was needed, and it made a story which was otherwise very straightforward, even with the symbolism threaded through, seem unnecessarily pretentious. Then again, perhaps I am just not intelligent enough to understand the link.

          There is a certain amount of violence throughout the book, although much of it is glossed over rather than described in detail. First of all, is David's sexual activity with Melanie, which comes across as more akin to rape than a loving coupling. Lucy's rape, however, which was clearly horrific, is hardly described at all - we are left to picture what must have happened through David's imaginings. The other thing that is upsetting is that the slaughter of dogs is constantly brought up. Lucy's dogs were all killed by the intruders, then David helps a woman put down a number of dogs who don't have homes. Their deaths are described as quick and peaceful, but for any animal lover, it can be rather hard to read.

          Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by this author. When I see that a book has won a Booker Prize, I often expect it to be a trial to read, but this one was very far from that. The story was very thought-provoking and was more than just a description of the characters and how they interacted, but, with the exception of the Byron bits, it wasn't at all pretentious. Best of all, Coetzee writes with a much appreciated brevity. He says what he needs to and no more, without it seeming abrupt. That is a great talent (and a blessing when it comes to the dog slaughters). This book does little to promote South Africa as a tourist attraction, but it is still a worthwhile read. Recommended.

          The book is available from play.com for £4.69. Published by Secker & Warburg, it has 220 pages. ISBN-10: 0099289520

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            04.01.2003 00:06

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            There are any other words that could be used to describe the characters in this book. the central character David is at first distasteful. Lucy, his daughter, disengaged. The themes within the book disheartening. But this novel deservedly won its prize. It is engaging throughout as you try to comprehend each characters thoughts, their motivations, and their actions. It makes it a thoroughly interesting, though at times uncomfortable, read. And I feel that that is what it should be recommended for. There is always going to be conflict in a novel set in South Africa after apartheid that discusses the relationship between its inhabitants, but Coetzee captures the essence of the ideas that the novel puts forwards and gripped me till the final page, making me question various boundaries that I had put around these issues and felt i had tackled. And i can see why it won its prize. Coetzee weaves together the different ideas with a seamless narration that throws up enjoyment as it does despair. Although throughout reading it the title may stick in your head, at the end of the novel another word may come to mind. Excellent.

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            02.04.2002 19:35
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            'Disgrace' is the type of novel that only comes along occasionally but leaves a hell of an impact when it has finally finished tearing your emotions to shreds. Filled to the brim with disillusionment, apathy and anti-establishment politics, this tale will most certainly bring about the urge to drag that soap-box out of the cupboard but ultimately leaves the reader questioning themselves. Set against a South Africa that is still emerging from the near self-destructive political divisions that overshadow it this seems to be a comment on the ideas of responsibility and moral judgement, as well as generational conflict. David Lurie is a 52yr old Professor whose academic and social career is slowly declining, reflected in his demotion from Professor of Modern Languages at Cape Town University College to the ultra-modern Professor of communications at Cape Technical University. A subtle difference it may be but it also reflects the growing boredom displayed by students in his seminar as he tries desperately to seek out the creative pulse within a decaying body. Twice divorced but with no shortage of desire, Lurie initiates a brief but invigorating affair with one of his students until he is outed by her father and boyfriend. What follows this is vintage Coetzee as Lurie refuses to repent for the affair therefore whilst he submits to the 'legalities', his sense of morality remains untainted. Given the acrimony surrounding his conduct, Lurie leaves to live with his daughter in the sparse, rural area of South Africa. It is here that he discovers a totally different world in which urban prejudices are rejected in favour of strained harmony between the white and black workers. Whilst his daughter lives with her female partner, she employs Petrus, a black worker who is effectively trying to gain financial control of the farm. It is at this point that the dialogue and characters' interplay reflects growing tension and discontent which is th
            e usual mark of a 'good' Coetzee novel. As if he was lulling the reader into a false sense of security, out of the desert countryside come a group of thieves and rapists who attack Luthrie and his daughter. It is at this point that the different attitudes to 'disgrace' become apparent, when it seems that Luthrie's daughter cannot bring about any legal proceedings since the reprisals will be far worse. As father and daughter conflict the reader becomes aware that this could easily be a novel that is looking back at them, rather than us looking at the novel. It's impossible to consider all the implications of what is, undoubtedly, a tremendous work of fiction. At times this is harrowing, other times pedestrian but the quality is always maintained and it is this consistency that has led Coetzee to two wins in the Booker Prize. I can't praise or recommend this enough and it's worth reading in tandem with In the Heart of the Country which deals with similar issues in an equally powerful form.

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              16.03.2002 03:46
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              In Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and other great novels, the eminent South African writer Coetzee set his dark stories in a chaotic near-future world on the edge of allegory. The place in this book is postapartheid South Africa; the power struggle is now; anarchy has come. This deeply pessimistic view is how many conservatives today see the changes in South Africa. David Lurie, 52-year-old divorced literary scholar, is disgraced for sexually harassing one of his college students. Refusing to submit to "counseling," he loses his job (he was never much of a teacher, anyway) and moves in with his beloved daughter Lucy on her small farm in the eastern Cape. She's a sturdy peasant, part of the new world ("dogs and a gun; bread in the oven and a crop in the earth") and he's glad for her--until one night the farm is ransacked, the animals killed, and Lucy gang-raped. The predators will come back, but she refuses to leave ("They see me as owing something"). In the end, she will bear the child from that rape, become the third wife of her former sharecropper, and live on his land. With the social chaos is Lurie's sense of personal failure. Is he also a monster? What about his own sexual aggression? Where is power now? There's an ongoing metaphor about the poet Byron's life and work that becomes tedious and self-indulgent--just too much about an idle old man "at the end of roving." Like Lurie, Coetzee clearly sees himself as apolitical, a weary figure "from the margins of history," but the insistence on violence as the only possibility makes the novel disappointing. What's strongest in the story, as good as anything Coetzee has ever written, are the scenes in the country place, especially the father-daughter relationship (both tender and apart). This novel has just won the prestigious Booker Prize in England, making Coetzee the first writer ever to wi
              n the prize twice.

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                31.08.2001 04:05
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                Disgrace is simultaneously a departure for JM Coetzee, and a return. A departure in that most of his novels are allegorical, with a dash of magic realism. In this case, Coetzee offers the story of David Lurie, a professor who has lost his faith in the South African university system, and no longer gets any satisfaction from his work. The story is bluntly, bludgeoningly real, told in a taut and economical style. There is no overt allegory, and certainly no departure from the reality we know: the characters all suffer the brutality of life in the raw, in South Africa. The novel is also a return, however, to the kind of story Coetzee attempted in Age of Iron, wherein an ageing, dying, lady classics professor gets drawn into the life of the Apartheid struggle in a Cape Town township. Both books present a view of the transformation of the life of white people in the new South Africa; the trading of enlightenment against power and wealth; the reversal of fortune. David Lurie draws himself into a university scandal by sleeping with a young student, Melanie. Disgusted by his situation, he leaves Cape Town for Salem, outside Grahamstown, to join his daughter Lucy on her plot or small holding on the outskirts of the Karoo, South Africa's red dust desert. There, Lucy and David, but Lucy in particular, are submitted to the violence that is also a part of the new South Africa. It is here that the novel really gets interesting, especially on a socio-political level. Coetzee uses the characters, and the relationships between them, to challenge his readers. How, as enlightened (or disillusioned) human beings, do we respond to personal violence? to the threat of attack? to disempowerment? In South Africa (which I know quite well) these are questions that are integral to our continuous process of building a national identity, of building a new society. Coetzee is offering a challenge that cuts to the core of all South Africans; this is, above a
                ll, salutary. Stop! he is saying. When personal violence is inflicted upon you, how do you respond? Do you internalise it? do you adapt to a new disempowered state? do you fight it? What would you do? he asks me. The answer is: I'm not sure.

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                  31.08.2001 03:18
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                  David Lurie teaches Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town. Arrogant, stubborn, greying and divorced, he tiredly lectures in spite of rising levels of ignorance amongst his students. Women are the only salt flavouring the bland monotony of Lurie's singleton lifestyle, but he wants nothing more from them than sex. After an involvement with Soraya, a prostitute, Lurie's next relationship is with Melanie, one of his students. The affair is brief, driven forward by Lurie's need for sexual fulfilment. Melanie's lack of emotional experience and innate curiosity allow him to satisfy this desire. Yet is it truly a relationship? At no point does Melanie express affection for her ageing lover; in fact her body language suggests revulsion or at least dislike. Lurie's lovemaking is described one-sidedly, verging on rape in its coldness and in the lack of interaction between the lovers. Disaster strikes with the public revelation of their affair. Melanie disappears from his classes and Lurie is eventually subjected to a University enquiry. Admitting his guilt, yet stubbornly resentful of the University's authority over his private life, he refuses to await reinstatement and abandons Cape Town under a cloud. Staying with his daughter, Lucy, on her smallholding in the South African bush, Lurie is stripped of everything related to his previous lifestyle. With nothing to do but help Lucy with her mundane, earth-motherly way of life, Lurie at first feels disconnected from the world and from his own emotions. Melanie's memory still haunts him, but the new life gradually takes on its own interest. The values of his daughter, whose nature-loving ways he once scorned, slowly take on new meaning as the realities of country living make themselves clear. These realities are driven home by a disturbing attack on Lucy's home. Lurie is badly burned, but Lucy's hurt is not visible to the naked eye;
                  she has been raped by the three men who attacked her farm. During the weeks that follow, Lurie's barrage of psychological defences against the world gradually dissolves. His fatherly instincts urge him to comfort and protect his daughter, yet he is unable to comprehend her reactions to the attack. Her mysterious inner strength renders him powerless; he cannot empathise. He nevertheless feels compelled to become her guardian as she tries to rebuild life on the farm under the threatening shadow of a repeat attack. There are countless themes running through this imagery-rich novel, not least the social and political divide between black and white in South Africa. Personally, I found it fascinating to watch the growth and development of Lurie's character in response to circumstance. In Cape Town, on home ground, he is the sexual predator, calculating, cynical, removed, assured of his goals and how to achieve them. Once in exile on Lucy's farm, he loses his footing, detached from his city habitat, eventually becoming the victim of a violent and degrading attack in a community where he has no desire to belong. In the aftermath of his fall, instinct and emotion finally override Lurie's intellectual and selfish approach to life; he appoints himself as Lucy's protector, but with unexpected - and, in his eyes, - utterly unsatisfying results. This novel is powerful and guarantees to make you think, whether you choose to read it on a social, political or personal level. Characters are vividly portrayed, and Coetzee captures father's and daughter's opposing philosophies of life with sympathy but not with automatic acceptance. Who is in the right, and why? As the reader, you are free to make your own decision.

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                    20.06.2001 04:26
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                    A friend lent me this book and I read it straight through in one evening which says a lot about its hold on the reader's imagination. I hadn't ever heard of the author or even the title, despite the critical acclaim I have since discovered it has received. The storyline itself is uncomplicated; a divorced ageing university professor has a short-affair with a student. The ensuing social disapproval and his refusal to apologise for his actions lead him to leave Cape Town and visit his daughter who lives and works her land in the Eastern Cape. Their relationship is explored through his attempt to understand and temporarily involve himself in her life. A brutal attack on the pair acts as a catalyst to illuminate the difficulties in their rapport as they seek different methods to deal with, and move on from the incident. The characters are not necessarily likeable, are fallible, and their relationships with each other and those around them are complex. Of particular importance is the connection with those they depend upon for support, be it neighbour, or colleague; and the sacrifices necessary to maintain these connections. There is no poetic description of the environment; instead stark reality is faced. This is also reflected in the uncompromising manner in which the harsh issues are faced. The daughter's sexuality and the consequences of a rape are nevertheless dealt with sensitively. The book provides much insight of the author's own reflections of the subject matter and often it is what remains unsaid that illuminates the main character's experience. Overall, this is an excellent book and well deserving of the award bestowed on it. It is thought provoking, yet uncomfortable. It provides a clear insight into many of the issues facing a country slowly seeking a path ahead, but proposes no solutions. It has much to offer those attempting to understand problems facing modern South Africa. <
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                      01.06.2001 04:20
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                      I'd never read any Coetzee before, but after several visits to South Africa on business, and attracted by the Booker seal of approval, I guessed I'd enjoy this. "Enjoy", however, doesn't seem appropriate for what is a cold, detached, and occasionally disturbing read. The story concerns a Capetown University professor, David Lurie, who, after a brief affair with one of his students, quits his post in "disgrace" and heads off to the countryside to stay at his lesbian daughter's farm. They are the victims of a violent attack - he is set on fire, she gang-raped - and are forced to reassess their relationship with each other. Coetzee uses the father/daughter relationship and the effects of the attack to comment on South African society as a whole. Lurie's affair is widely condemned by the media and Capetown society, whereas the assault on he and his daughter is brushed aside, seen as a fact of life in an unequal and increasingly violent land, where the legacy of apartheid seems to have created a more, not less divided country. As an evocation of the most screwed-up country I have ever visited it is peerless; as a novel, the author's detachment and refusal to pass judgment allows the reader to form their own conclusions. Intellectual and thought-provoking, yet readable and very accessible, "Disgrace" may well come to be seen as one of the most important books of recent years.

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                      Winner of the Booker Prize 1999 / David Lurie, 52-year-old English professor, leaves his old job and an affair with one of his students to live with his daughter on her remote farm. A novel set in South Africa.