Heads Up: The Childhood of Jesus

Coetzee tackles the greatest story ever (re)told

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The Independent Culture

What are we talking about? The latest novel from J M Coetzee, telling the mysterious story of a young refugee and his family, forced to flee from a strange land.

Elevator pitch All hail Coetzee's latest, semi-religious, offering.

Prime movers It's published by Harvill Secker, and is edited by Geoff Mulligan.

The talent Well, Coetzee of course: this is his 13th novel. Previous books which achieved critical acclaim and modern-classic/university-syllabus status include Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace, and Life & Times of Michael K. The latter two won the Booker prize, and Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

The early buzz Those who have seen it, seem impressed. Stephen Romei in The Australian wrote "from the opening chapter I had that hard-to-pin-down sense that I was in the presence of a masterpiece. That suspicion builds to certainty as Coetzee gradually, with great intelligence and skill, brings to extraordinary – possibly divine – life an ostensibly simple story about a boy and a man who are refugees in a strange (in more than one sense of the word) country." The Toronto Star wrote that the book "is garnering a lot of pre-release buzz for its daring content and perceptive reworking of Christianity's fundamental narrative. It's already tipped as one of the biggies of 2013, and is a hot lead item on the spring list." Tim Adams, in The Observer, tipped it for a Booker triple; "written with all of Coetzee's penetrating rigour, it will be an early contender for an unprecedented third Booker prize".

Insider knowledge Intriguingly, Coetzee was announced this week as the curator of the Belgian Pavilion at the art-world jamboree, the Venice Biennale.

It's great that… the new novel – his first in six years – is being tipped as one of his most impressive before it's even published.

It's a shame that… even if it does win every award going, we may not see Coetzee collecting any prizes or giving any interviews (famously recalcitrant and a shade reclusive, he didn't turn up for either Booker prize and likes to tease journalists). Unless – who knows? – the art fair will mark the unveiling of a new phase of his public persona.

Hit potential A new Coetzee novel is a literary event; should do well.

The details The Childhood of Jesus is published on 7 March.