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Powells.com
Saturday, December 20th, 2003


 

Elizabeth Costello

by J. M. Coetzee

A review by Ann Ellenbecker

Elizabeth Costello is as good as fiction gets. Recently awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, J. M. Coetzee has surpassed his already transcendent talent for characterization with this divine portrayal of his most complicated protagonist to date, Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello.

Costello's life is gradually revealed through the lectures she gives around the world at college campuses, on cruise ships, and the like. Rather than speaking about her work, the aging author uses the platform to espouse her convictions. However, the manner in which she demonstrates these convictions inevitably lands her in trouble. For example, in her lectures about the rights of animals, she compares corporate farms to the concentration camp at Treblinka. When speaking on "The Problem of Evil," she finds the subject of one of her criticisms (author Paul West) seated at the back of the room.

Despite the strength of her convictions, Costello's real challenge comes at the book's conclusion when she is forced to publicly state her beliefs. Words have been her life-long companions; the teller of stories, her fate seems a simple one. But, words are of little help to her here. In this struggle, she must convince her judges, as well as herself, that a writer does more than imitate.

As always, Coetzee fills in the details with layer upon layer of spare, exquisite sentences, culminating in a rare and affecting reading experience.


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