Study Guide

Age of Iron Summary

By J.M. Coetzee

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Age of Iron Summary

The novel starts off on a pretty rough day for our narrator, Mrs. Curren. She goes to the doctor only to find out that her cancer is no longer treatable and she's going to die soon. Huge downer. As if that weren't bad enough, she comes home from that visit to find a homeless man camped out in the alleyway beside her house. Mrs. Curren tells the man that he can't stay there and he peaces out, but he comes back almost as quickly as he left. Giving up, Mrs. Curren invites him into her house for a bite to eat. She offers him work, which just ticks him off. He storms away in anger, but later on Mrs. Curren realizes that he's back when she spots him watching TV over her shoulder through the window. Their relationship seems kind of cemented when she has an attack of pain and he helps her back into the house.

Mrs. Curren and the homeless man start spending more time together, since that's what people usually do when random strangers start camping out in their yards – right? In fact, when neighbors start calling out of their concern that someone is apparently trespassing on Mrs. Curren's property, she tells them that he's supposed to be there – he "works" for her. It starts to become pretty clear that Mrs. Curren doesn't think of the man as an intruder anymore. In fact, she asks him a pretty big favor: she wants him to deliver some particular papers to her daughter in America after she dies. All he has to do is put it in the mail, but he hesitates. Finally, though, he agrees to take on the task.

Florence, Mrs. Curren's housekeeper, returns to Mrs. Curren's house with her three kids: her son Bheki (who apparently used to be named Digby) and her two daughters, Hope and Beauty. Mrs. Curren isn't used to having Bheki around, but Florence explains that he has nowhere else to go because all of the schools in Gugulethu, where they live, have been shut down.

We start to learn a little bit more about the political turmoil that our characters are living through. Florence doesn't seem to think too highly of the homeless man (whose name, we learn, is Vercueil). Bheki's friend, whose name we don't find out right away, also starts hanging out at Mrs. Curren's house. Mrs. Curren sees that guy as a troublemaker, and she becomes even surer of it when he starts antagonizing Vercueil and the two of them end up getting in a physical fight. Vercueil disappears for a bit to go "lick his wounds."

Meanwhile, some police officers start camping out in a car by Mrs. Curren's house. Mrs. Curren gets the vibe that they're there to scope out Bheki and his friend. She tells them that it's fine with her that the boys are around and that they're no trouble. After a bit, Vercueil comes back, this time with some lady friend. They're both apparently either drunk or drugged out of their minds and go to bed in Mrs. Curren's living room. Mrs. Curren goes from being completely alone to having her house overrun with people she barely knows. In fact, this newfound "family" starts to become an issue for Mrs. Curren – she feels like people are preying on her property already, and she's not even dead yet.

Soon thereafter, we start to see the way violence really works in this society. When Bheki and his friend go for a bike ride down the street one day, the police who have been scoping them out pull up beside the boys and basically force them to collide with the opening door of a plumbing truck – ack! Bheki's friend splits his forehead open, and Mrs. Curren has to sit on the ground and pinch his wound shut while they wait for help. She starts to realize that the police might not be the upstanding folks that she thought they were – rather, they perpetuate the hate that fills their society. An ambulance comes and takes Bheki's friend away. The accident becomes a huge point of tension between Mrs. Curren and Florence because Mrs. Curren really wants to make sure that the police have to answer for what they did, but Florence doesn't want to take the issue any further.

Mrs. Curren calls the hospital to check on Bheki's friend but there's somehow no record of him. Florence, Mrs. Curren, Bheki, and Vercueil go to look for him instead. At one point, Mrs. Curren is in too much pain to go on, so she and Vercueil just sit in the car together. She reveals that her daughter has no idea that she's dying. Vercueil encourages Mrs. Curren to talk to her daughter because her daughter will never forgive her for not telling her the truth.

Pretty soon, Florence comes back in a huff – they've found Bheki's friend. She thinks it's totally inappropriate that he's stuck in a hospital among old people who are dying. Vercueil and Mrs. Curren go in to talk to Bheki's friend. She brings him some fruit. She notices how he seems to hate her, and she can't help but think that she also hates him.

When Mrs. Curren and Vercueil go home, she asks him if he wants to sleep on the couch and thinks about how nice it would be if he lived there. It starts to seem as though the person who was once such an inconvenience to her is actually becoming the very soul on whom she depends the most.

One night soon thereafter, Mrs. Curren gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a woman asking for Florence. It appears that Bheki is in some kind of trouble. Vercueil refuses to wake up and help, so Mrs. Curren ends up driving Florence, Hope, and Beauty over to Gugulethu. Mrs. Curren is introduced to Mr. Thabane, Florence's cousin, who gets into the car with them. He tells them that the place they're going to drive to is really dangerous – and, as we find out, he's totally right. They go to an area that's exploding in chaos, full of burning buildings and screaming people. After a while, Mrs. Curren tells Mr. Thabane that she wants to go home. He calls her out on her attitude – it's easy enough for her to turn her back on this scene because it's not her everyday reality. Nobody else has that luxury. This exchange ends with Mrs. Curren sort of making a fool of herself in front of a crowd of people as she tries to explain her point of view.

Mr. Thabane, Mrs. Curren, and a young boy drive on. They find Florence, who has managed to locate Bheki. Mr. Thabane goes to check out the scene and then comes back to tell Mrs. Curren that she should take a look at what they've found. We find out that Bheki and four others have been murdered and their bodies are now laid out against a wall for everyone to see. The rain beats down on their bodies, and their eyes and mouths are filled with sand. This is all too much for Mrs. Curren. She finds an officer and asks him if he knows about all of the horrible things going on. He simply shrugs her off. Mrs. Curren drives home, convinced that she'll never be warm again. The next day, Vercueil and Mrs. Curren go out for a spin in her car. When they get back, some ladies are there to get Florence's things. They treat Mrs. Curren like she can't possibly understand how Florence feels.

The day after that, Vercueil asks Mrs. Curren if "today is the day," meaning that he's curious as to whether she intends to commit suicide. She tells him yes. The two of them go out in the car and Vercueil gives her a box of matches to set herself on fire. He also tells her that driving off a cliff might be a good idea. She doesn't want to go through with it, though, so they drive again. Vercueil buys some booze and the two of them start drinking. Mrs. Curren tells him about what happened to Bheki. She can't believe how horrifying the world has become. Vercueil encourages Mrs. Curren to get wasted on the cheap booze he bought. She gets really angry with him and tells him to get out of her car. He throws her keys out the window and storms off. We don't see him again for a while.

One night, Mrs. Curren wakes up to the sound of dogs barking and thinks that Vercueil has returned. She goes downstairs and finds Bheki's friend instead. He asks where Bheki is. She tells him that he's dead, but it doesn't click. She gives him something to eat and then sends him to bed. The next day, she cleans and dresses the boy's wound. He keeps asking where Bheki is. And so she keeps telling him that Bheki is dead – forever. The boy tells her that his name is John, but she's pretty sure that it's not actually his name. Later on, Mrs. Curren walks by Florence's room and realizes that John is up to something – he's pulled up one of the floorboards, and he stashes something under the bed when he notices her standing there. She calls Mr. Thabane and tells him that someone needs to come get John, but Mr. Thabane totally noncommittal and doesn't help her out.

The next morning, Mrs. Curren hears someone trying to come through the front gate and figures once again that Vercueil has returned. Nope, this time it's the police. She hears a gunshot and opens the door. She tells them not to hurt John – he's just a kid, after all. She goes over to John and tells him that she won't let them hurt him, but deep down she knows that she's powerless to save him. A lady officer distracts Mrs. Curren. We hear some gunshots, followed by silence. Mrs. Curren knows that they've killed John.

The officers tell Mrs. Curren it's OK for her to go back into her house, but she wanders off because her home just doesn't feel like home anymore. She lies down under a bridge and eventually falls asleep. She wakes up to find a ten-year-old kid feeling her up, looking for money. He and some other kids come back and start prodding inside her mouth with a stick. She passes out.

When Mrs. Curren wakes up, Vercueil is there. He picks her up and starts carrying her home. She still doesn't feel like she can go back, so they go to a wooded space, lie down on a piece of cardboard, and fall asleep. The next day they go back to her place and find the house in shambles. Turns out there's still a police officer scoping out her place. He grills her about the gun that John had and her relationship to him and to Vercueil. When he leaves, Mrs. Curren calls Mr. Thabane and tells him to be careful.

Mrs. Curren's health really starts to deteriorate. She begins having weird dreams. She gets a new kind of pain medication and Vercueil encourages her to take more than the prescribed dose. He also offers to suffocate her if she's looking for an easy way out of her pain, but she begs him not to. Mrs. Curren and Vercueil start sharing her bed, but in a non-sexual way – they just sleep together so that Mrs. Curren can stay warm. We see Vercueil starting to take care of Mrs. Curren in ways she (and we) never expected him to.

One day Mrs. Curren wakes up feeling cold. She asks Vercueil if it is "time." He doesn't say anything, but he gets into bed with her and holds her. The novel ends with Mrs. Curren remarking that there was no warmth to be had from his embrace.

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