The first-person narrator of this book is Magda, the daughter of an Afrikaner sheep farmer on a remote ranch in the South African veldt. Magda has grown up alone with her stern, patriarchal father and the servants. She is a bitter old maid, ignored and disregarded. By page ten, you figure out that Magda is kind of nuts. Somewhere along the way, you figure out that between one paragraph and another, sometimes within the same paragraph, Magda slips between fantasy and reality without warning. By the end of the book, she has completely lost her mind and you have to reevaluate everything you've read because it's not clear what really happened and what was Magda's imagination, fabrication, or delusion.
The story centers around Magda and her father and Hendrick, a black African servant who comes to work on the farm, and his wife Anna, whom Magda's father, living alone and wifeless out on the veldt, soon covets. Obviously this isn't going to end well, especially with Magda watching, judging, and resenting. The violence seems to be the point where Magda goes off the rails into complete unreliability. She tells multiple separate and conflicting stories over the course of the book, with no textual clue to the reader that they are not all part of one seamless narrative.
The imagery is stark and isolating as Magda and the handful of other characters scratch out a living in the scorpion and jackal-haunted boonies, but what's really stark and isolating is the relationship between the white farmer and daughter and the black servants, initially friendly and benevolent on the surface, but their every interaction is fraught with the weight of colonialism. The power dynamic between oppressor and oppressed switches several times over the course of the novel, which I think was probably Coetzee's intent. It is indeed a bleak and powerful tale.
That said, this is a book for readers who like literary prose, meaning sentences and paragraphs worked and reworked to artistic effect rather than to tell a story. Magda's internal monologue, even when it's not spinning off into crazy la-la land, is incessantly navel-gazing, dense, and verbose. In the Heart of the Country
is one of those books where sometimes you have to reread a paragraph several times to figure out what is actually being said and what's going on. You would think a novel with as much sex and violence as this one packed into its sparse few pages would be more, well, interesting, but it's only interesting on the level of verbiage and literary analysis. It's the kind of book literature professors like to talk about and ask midterm questions like "Describe some of the metaphors the author uses for colonial and patriarchal relationships," blah bah blah.
Honestly, I don't understand people who read books like this for "fun." Literary, prize-winning prose is often not exciting, storytelling prose, and in this case it's almost like simple declarative sentences and a linear narrative are verboten. Yes, I understand the story, yes, I saw the hidden depths in Coetzee's book and I'm sure I could write a term paper about it as well as the next English major (even though I was never an English major), but boy did did it drag and unlike some other literary authors (like Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami) who sometimes annoy me but also tell a story
even when they are experimenting, and intrigue me enough to want to read more, Coetzee makes me want to stay away from anything else he's written because this book did not endear him to me.
That sounds like a pretty negative review, and if I were rating this based on my enjoyment of the book alone, In the Heart of the Country
would probably get 1.5 or 2 stars. But I can't help but admire an author who puts words together in a way that most can't and manages to drag such powerful weight and layered meaning into such a small book. So I am bumping it up to 2.5 stars based on "literary merit," but rounding down because I still thought it was self-important dudeliness. I can't say I recommend it unless you are reading it for a specific purpose, though, or you just really like this kind of book.