Published in 1990, Age of Iron is J.M. Coetzee's sixth novel. While less well-known than some of his other works such as Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999) – both of which received the Booker Prize – Age of Iron was tremendously well-received by literary critics worldwide. It's an important part of the larger body of Coetzee's work for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. (Go, Coetzee!)
Age of Iron, like many of Coetzee's novels, takes on the subject of South Africa under Apartheid. Apartheid was a system of racial segregation that was legally in effect in South Africa from 1948 until 1994. It upheld the rights of whites and severely limited the rights of blacks. Age of Iron takes place smack in the middle of a nationwide State of Emergency in which anti-Apartheid sentiment was at its height and violence was spiraling out of control (for more, see our "Setting" section).
The novel's narrator is Mrs. Curren, a retired university professor in Cape Town who's now dying of cancer. As Mrs. Curren faces her impending death, some rather crazy things start happening around her. She's spent most of her life feeling pretty separated from the effects that Apartheid has on the society around her. All of a sudden, though, the outside world starts creeping into her private world, beginning when Vercueil, a homeless man, starts living in her yard.
As the novel progresses, Mrs. Curren begins to witness the kinds of horrible violence that she's long heard about but has never before seen. She starts to understand those around her in a completely new way. As a white woman in a world where whites are the oppressors, she feels an increasing sense of guilt as well as a deepening hatred for the world around her. These feelings only become more complicated as people close to her fall prey to the system. As with the protagonists of Coetzee's other novels, Mrs. Curren knows that the system she lives in is to blame for the pain and hatred that surround her, but she feels powerless to do anything about it.
We should probably mention that J.M. Coetzee himself was a well-known critic of Apartheid, and he ultimately left South Africa for Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. Since then, his works have shifted in focus, with several of them taking place in his new home country instead. Nevertheless, most people seem to know Coetzee as a writer whose works focus mainly on the problems facing South Africans, and that illuminate his somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the country in which he was raised. While the historical period we encounter in Age of Iron has now passed, the memories of Apartheid live on in his works, and to read Coetzee's novels is to remember the unimaginable struggles that people just like us had to live through not all that long ago.
We hear you – you pick up your copy of Age of Iron and the first thing you read on the dust jacket is that the book is about the life of an old woman in Cape Town who's dying of cancer. Great selling point, publishers. The first thing you think is, well, there's a downer. Is there anything to relate to in this novel?
Well, yes, once you dive into it. Age of Iron is all about seeing things from a new perspective. Mrs. Curren has spent most of her life in Cape Town living under Apartheid, a system of rule that gave lots of privileges to white people like her at the expense of her black neighbors. For years, this doesn't seem to faze her – on a hypothetical level, she knows what's going on, but she feels really far removed from it. Then, all of a sudden, some crazy things happen and she finds that even as a 70-year-old woman she can totally change her ideas, attitudes, and sympathies.
You may not live in South Africa. You may not even have the slightest idea of what Apartheid was (though, if this is the case, you ought to check out our "Setting" section). But, you probably know what it's like to suddenly realize that someone is being treated really unfairly. You may have discovered that you were part of someone else's problems without having previously realized it. Like Mrs. Curren, you might one day discover that someone you didn't originally like all that much has turned out to be your best friend in the world. The particulars might look different from person to person, but the sort of personal journey that Mrs. Curren goes through in Age of Iron is one that all of us undertake at some point or another.