A boy in the mealie-grinder

Novelist J M Coetzee is known for his dark and sometimes obscure fiction: his new book is the memoir of a secretive, alienated South African childhood material and use shit phies off Jane Aphies off Jane Aphies of
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Boys don't have boyhoods any more. The very notion has begun to disappear, suggesting as it does something rugged and outdoorsy, involving penknives, campfires and daring adventures. The novelist J M Coetzee did have a boyhood, or something like, in South Africa, 50 years ago. But it was a strain, and that's in part what his memoir is about: how a complex, intelligent, sensitive boy struggles with the values of machismo.

Compared to his pale younger brother and wimpy cousins, Coetzee was in some ways conventionally boyish, riding a bike, playing with his Meccano set, collecting stamps, lead soldiers and cigarette cards. He loved cricket, too, and constructed a machine that would bowl to him. But he was a vulnerable child, a nervous wreck when it came to playing cricket on a proper pitch and terrified of getting into fights. On average, he missed every third day at school because of sickness. There was an episode at Scout camp when he nearly drowned. Childhood wasn't a happy place, "but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring".

"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" goes a famous gospel song. It's not a feeling Coetzee ever knew. All too mothered, his problem was how to feel "normal" when arrangements at home were shamefully at odds with everyone else's - especially in the lack of caning and physical chastisement. His mother, a former teacher, was a fierce protector of her two boys, and Coetzee, as the eldest, had a sense of himself as "prince of the house", a spoiled despot whose only care was how not to disappoint her hopes for him.

In truth, his mother was already disappointed - by her husband (a solicitor reduced to book-keeping for Standard Canners), by the loss of her golden youth, by life in lonely Worcester (90 miles from Cape Town), where the red dust blew endlessly into every corner. But like many a post-war mother, she buried her losses in blinding, self-sacrificial love. There's a scene where she takes her sons to the circus - and, finding herself short of money, waits outside in the blazing December heat while they enjoy the show. Such love was a fear and burden for her eldest son. He knew there was something unnatural in the relegation of his father to least important man about the house.

Despotic at home, Coetzee was meek and mild at school, where he spent his time trying not to be noticed. He might have succeeded in this had he not always come top of the class. There was also the problem of his religion: asked, when starting at a new school, whether he was "a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew", he said the second - not because he was (his family were non-church-going Christians), but because he liked what he'd read of Rome in history books. The lie allowed him to miss assembly but he was persecuted by boys who assumed he was a "Filthy Jew" and interrogated by Catholics demanding to know where he went for catechism on Fridays.

The religious imposture added to Coetzee's sense of being a liar - cold- hearted and secretive, too, like a spider "scuttling back into its hole, closing the trapdoor behind, shutting out the world, hiding". His alienation from both family and school is typified by his enthusiasm for the Russians at a time, early in the Cold War, when it was permitted only to love America. Except when the South African boxer Vic Toweel won the world bantamweight title, nationalism, too, left him cold. As for race, his surname was Afrikaans but he considered Afrikaners rough, surly and intransigent. Coloureds he found more attractive, and responded to, although he had been brought up to look upon them as servants. He thought of himself as English, which he associated with refinement, and which connected him to Dunkirk and Robin Hood. Being English also allowed him a kind of privacy.

He felt freest on visits to the family farm, run by his father's brother, Uncle Son. It's not that he was accepted there, either: he was too much like his mother, whom his uncle resented for having emasculated her husband. But (the writing has a Lawrentian lilt here) he loved the annual rhythms, the ancient mysteries of the heat and veld, the immensity. He belonged there, and felt that by right the farm should belong to him. It was where the maternal grip on him was weakest. The farm was like a second mother, giving birth to another self.

The birth of Coetzee the novelist is a subtext of Boyhood - we grasp that the experiences that made him unhappy as a child were also the making of the writer. From the start, he feels special, with a sense of destiny. He describes the sensation of floating above his own experiences, the adult self rising out of the ashes of childhood. Part of the task of this adult, the last page of the book implies, will be to preserve the people he knew and the stories he heard in his youth.

J M Coetzee is known as a dark and sometimes obscure novelist. This book has its darknesses, too, not least towards the end, when the Coetzee family return to Cape Town and his father becomes unemployed and alcoholic. Yet it is a bright and lucid book, written with the clarity - and charity - of a middle-aged man looking back on his younger self. Neither self- deprecating nor self-indulgent, it achieves a strange detachment, in part through the use of the third-person pronoun: the boy at the centre is "he" not "I", family Christian names are avoided, and there's a fictionality about the narrative method.

This detachment can be unnerving, as in the episode, surely traumatic for them both, when he crushes his brother's hand in a mealie-grinding machine (the middle finger is later amputated), an incident covered in the briefest of paragraphs. But this is the book's story: the getting of distance; the survival of a delicate spirit in a harsh and divided society. And the economy with which Coetzee makes sense of his past is evidence, once again, of his outstanding talent.

! `Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life' by J M Coetzee is published by Secker at pounds 14.99