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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Age of Iron
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on 30 August 2009
An retired middle-class woman learns that she is dying from incurable and painful cancer. The same day a vagabond sleeps in her garden. The time is the final years of apartheid in South Africa. While the country and the manners of people are fallling apart, the human tragedies of blacks spill over into her house and the bumb becomes her unlikely companion. The novel is written as a letter to her long lost daughter who escaped the South African situation by moving to the US.

The story is deep, calm and questioning. The reader apparently learns something about what it is like to be in the shoes of this old lady. Her thoughts about death and living are not the same as those of Micheal K. or the Magistrate (Waiting for the Barbarians), but the whole style, open ended at times, belongs to this woman. J. M. Coetze simply seems to have a remarkable talent for empathy. With novels like this one he truly fulfils one of the main objectives of a novel: learning what it is to be another person, and here during times of critical contemplations.
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on 23 February 2014
If you like introspective novels, where a character truly goes through thorough self-examination, you will enjoy this. The protagonist in this book is a elderly woman diagnosed with cancer and living in apartheid South Africa. The novel is written as a letter to the protagonist's daughter and this strategy allows the writer to engage his character in a lot of introspection. The woman's cancer is also a metaphor for the cancer of apartheid that is killing her country and her introspection is often directed as much at her country as at herself.

Coetzee is a master of language and a master of metaphor. As she examines the worth of her own life and of her country, the protagonist uses rich language and beautiful, thought-provoking metaphors. Very occasionally, I found this a little overdone, and felt the introspection made the book drag a little as the dying woman waxed lyrical. This did not detract from a very powerful novel, however, a novel which allows the reader a window onto the pointless violence and death of apartheid from the point of view of someone experiencing it firsthand.
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on 23 June 2012
In a letter to her daughter in America, Mrs. Curren, the 70-ish narrator of the terrific AGE OF IRON, makes a gruesome disclosure: her Cape Town physician has just told her she has an incurable cancer and her time is short. Her letter, which is the AGE OF IRON, then declares: "The first task laid on me, from today: to resist the craving to share my death. Loving you, loving life, to forgive the living and take my leave without bitterness. To embrace death as my own, mine alone."

While this task may feel right to Mrs. Curren, its fulfillment is undermined by her cancer, which gradually asserts control. "The end comes galloping," she observes. "I had not reckoned that as one goes downhill one goes faster and faster." The fulfillment of this task is also foiled by the apartheid system of South Africa, which Coetzee presents as a form of political and societal cancer. Finally, her own nature makes such a calm and self-contained end impossible. "To be full enough to give and to give from one's fullness: what deeper urge is there? Out of their withered bodies even the old try to squeeze one last drop."

These elements--cancer, apartheid, and Mrs. Curren's giving and communicative nature--combine to create a tense and brutal story, in which Mrs. Curren, who is isolated on principle, develops a strange yet appropriate accommodation to her impending death. In doing so, she confronts her cancer and the cancer of her country, while finding comfort in the company of an alcoholic vagrant, who embodies both malfunctioning South Africa and the shortcomings of willed obliviousness. Sounds weird... but it works.

As with most elements of this layered novel, the expression "age of iron" has multiple meanings. Initially, it is a reference to the ideologies of both defiant black Africans and the brutal Afrikaner government, who Mrs. Curren considers the "dogmatists and witch-hunters of both armies." But eventually, the expression also describes South Africans like Mrs. Curren and her daughter, who take small and private but obdurate steps in reaction to the shame they feel about the government and apartheid.

AGE OF IRON is a superior novel and allegory. And those who enjoy action writing may choose to reread the amazing Chapter Three, where a police action in a black township challenges Mrs. Curren's lifelong habits of mind.

Highly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 May 2008
In this violent text, an old woman learns that she has an incurable cancer. She meets her `angel of death' and together they pass the last months of her life in `a world of rage and violence', in a country (South-Africa) that is `a nightmare from beginning to end, with white zealots preaching the old regime of death to children some too young to tie their shoelaces.'

The deadly cancer of the old woman is an allegory of the country's own destination: `I have cancer from the accumulation of shame I have endured in my life. That is how cancer comes about: from self-loathing the body turns malignant and begins to eat away at itself.'
That eating away is `the reign of the locust family': children burning their own schools, and killing the young even if they are colored ones.
Like the old woman, the country is `a bad tempered old hound snoozing in the doorway, taking its time to die'. Like the old woman the country will turn into smoke and ash.

What is J.M. Coetzee's answer to this devastating situation? Denouncing, for `writing is the foe of death.'

With `Age of Iron', J.M. Coetzee has written an iron masterpiece.
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on 12 August 2005
In this novel first published in 1990, Mr Coetzee gives the grim account of both a human being facing imminent death and a country - South Africa - still immersed in the tragedy of the apartheid regime. Mrs Curren, a professor of classics in Cape Town, has just received the fatal news from her doctor, Dr Syfert, that she suffers from an incurable form of cancer. Part of the narrative consists in an imaginary letter Mrs Curren will never write to her daughter who left for America in 1976. Indeed she does not consider it to be just to share her burden with her daughter but, as she puts it, "to resist the craving to share my death", "to take my leave without bitterness" and "to embrace death as my own, mine alone." But since it is nearly impossible for her to approach death without the support of another human being, she ends up sharing her thoughts and life with Mr Vercueil, a tramp she finds one morning sleeping in the garden of her house.
Death is omnipresent in Mr Coetzee's work, not only Mrs Curren's but in the townships of Cape Town where the lives of the coloureds are worth next to nothing and therefore death is as common as life for the people obliged to live there. A powerful, sad and unforgettable tale whose characters and events cut to the bone.
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on 25 February 1999
This novel considers the deterioration of the physical body of the female protagonist as she dies of cancer alongside the demise of the body politic in South Africa in the 1984-86 State of Emergency. Elizabeth Curran returns home after receiving the news of her cancer to find that a vagrant has moved into her garden. The shock of her recent news and the terrible violence that is being enacted all around her in the townships causes her to form a bond with this man. She is unable to tell her daughter of her illness and this novel becomes a letter to the daughter in America which she will receive only when her mother is dead. It becomes clear during the novel that Elizabeth can talk to this vagrant about the things that concern her, and she openly discusses her inability to understand the violence and the bloodshed that she witnesses. Throughout the novel the reader is made aware of the tenuous position of a white liberal woman in South Africa and the question of the right to speak is perpetually one that bothers both the reader and Elizabeth. Ultimately this book reveals the difficulties of being a part of a system that you disagree with and the almost impossible task of trying to speak out against it with language and not violence.
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on 11 October 2011
This is a serious, very powerful and, at times, painful read, typical of Coetzee. Whilst much is dark - the narrator is dying of cancer, and through her the reader witnesses scenes of terrible violence and injustice - there are some glimmerings of hope.
If you are interested in deepening understanding of South Africa's past (and present) you will gain much from this novel. I found it totally engaging on an emotional as well as intellectual level.
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on 18 May 2010
Age of Iron is an epistolary novel; it is one long letter that Mrs. Curren wants to be sent to her daughter after she passes away. The advantage of this form is that, in spite of her absence, the daughter plays an important role in the novel, indicating that the relationship between mother and daughter is a crucial theme.
Since it is a one-way correspondence and Mrs. Curren will never experience consequences from her daughter's reaction, the novel has the character of a memoir and confession. It is written in a frank style, paying more heed to an authentic representation than to the daughter's feelings.
Mrs. Curren reads a story by Tolstoy, creating an explicit reference to this text. She allows Vercueil into her home, just as the Shoemaker in Tolstoy's story allows in a stranger who turns out to be an angel. She thinks that Vercueil is not an angel, since she does not see the current condition of her environment, urban South Africa, as inviting for angels (14). The title, Age of Iron, refers to this condition. According to Mrs. Curren, people become increasingly tough. Mrs. Curren represents all the events and characters, but in spite of her disagreement with them, her letter gives these `iron people' a voice.
Vercueil can be seen as her death angel as well as her guardian angel. She meets him when she finds out that she has terminal cancer and dies in his embrace in the end (or imagines her death thus, as she could not have written this had she actually died). He can be seen as her guardian angel because he stays with her until the end, holding her old and deceased body to keep her warm.
In Tolstoy's story, God sends an angel to earth in order to find out about the love of humans, which appears to extend beyond family ties (Yeoh 116). This points to a theme in Age of Iron. Mrs. Curren invites two strangers into her home: Mr. Vercueil and John. She learns to love Vercueil in the end, but she cannot love John. She writes that this makes her doubt whether her love for her own daughter is true. As Yeoh points out, John is in every way her opposite; he is "young, male, black and radical" (113). Her failure to love John could mean that she can only love another in as far as the other is like her, meaning that ultimately she only loves herself. On the other hand, the connection she finally makes with Vercueil could show that loving another is possible after all.
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on 13 February 2015
Some sparks of intensity but the story lacks the credibility and inner life that I admire in other Coetzee books
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on 6 October 2015
A marvellous book; not easy and harrowing in places but repays careful reading.
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