Foe, by J.M. Coetzee – Book Review

foe

Foe, by J.M. Coetzee
Fiction, 160 pages ~ Trade Paperback
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: January 1988

Foe
, by J.M. Coetzee, has been sitting on my book shelf for the longest time. I think I originally bought it for a literature class that I ended up not taking, but I kept the book around because I love to read, and I have been hearing that Coetzee is a great writer. He might not have had a Pulitzer at the time I got this book (or did he get it for this book, I have to check), but I think he has one at this point as well as getting the Booker Prize Award, twice. It finally made it to the head of my TBR pile because I was on my way to Italy for vacation and looking for books to take with me which were lightweight and easy to carry. I was also intrigued to read a re-imagining of the Robinson Crusoe story, even though I still to this day, have not read Robinson Crusoe itself.

Foe starts off with Susan Barton, who has spent a year in the Caribbean searching for her missing daughter, being marooned by mutinous pirates, who have killed her ship’s captain (also her lover), and set her adrift in a dinghy where she is washed up on an abandoned island. The only inhabitants of this island are Cruso, a man who has totally abandoned the idea of ever being returned to civilization, and his black manservant, Friday, who may or may not have possession of his tongue (a question which haunts Susan throughout the novel). The book explores their brief time together on the island and Susan’s subsequent efforts to shape and give meaning to her time on the island. At the urging of one of her rescuers, she contacts writer Daniel Foe to write her story, which unfolds in a series of letters written to him as she settles back into her life in England and tries to support herself and Friday. While living in Foe’s house she starts receiving visits from a strange young woman who insists that she is her long lost daughter.

In some ways I was intrigued by this novel, but I didn’t love it. It wasn’t difficult to read. It was descriptive, well-written and had some interesting points but I struggled throughout with my dislike of the main character. She was petulant, whiny and made decisions that had a major impact on the lives of Friday and Cruso without having the forethought to think things through, and with disastrous consequences. The narrative is an interesting commentary on race, gender, colonization and issues of female sexuality; thereby providing interesting questions to ponder. Foe is a short read; no more than 250 pages, which worked in its favor, because had it been longer I probably would not have made it through to the end. I also suspect that my thoughts and feelings might be totally different had I actually read Robinson Crusoe. Unfortunately I can’t say much too much more about it without giving away the plot. Drat!

This book was painful for me to read, but it’s short, and if you can soldier on, you’ll think interesting thoughts. I would recommend this book even though I disliked Susan so much (I realize she had to be as she was for the book to raise the issues that it did) because it’s thought provoking, and makes good discussion book (even if like me, you have to have it with yourself). I feel like I ought to cut Susan some slack because she comes in the middle of a bunch of books I have been reading, whose main characters I dislike, so I might have just been cranky and impatient with her. But probably not too much.

Have you reviewed Foe by J.M. Coetzee? Please e-mail me your link or leave it in the comments, I’d love to have it here.

5 thoughts on “Foe, by J.M. Coetzee – Book Review

  • August 15, 2008 at 12:54 PM
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    Thanks for the review. I think I’ll skip this one. Unlikeable main characters is not generally something I like. :-)

  • December 15, 2008 at 4:25 PM
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    Coetzee won the Nobel prize (for all books he’s written) in 2003 and the Man Booker prize (best book of the year in the British Commonwealth) for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983. Pulitzer is for American writing ;)
    I’ve only read Michael K by Coetzee and it was similar: painful to read, but incredibly well done. It’s a book I’ll likewise recommend, even though I didn’t love it. I’m intrigued by your review of Foe, although I may read some other Coetzee (and Robinson Crusoe)before I approach it. Thanks for your thoughts!

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