Age of Iron Background

Age of Iron Background

Age of Iron was published in 1990 and is the sixth novel written by South African author J. M. Coetzee. It was an international critical success and although it didn't receive any of the prestigious literary awards that some of his other novels did, it nonetheless added to the weight of the body of his work that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Typical of a Coetzee novel, Age of Iron deals with the subject of apartheid, the South African policy of racial segregation that did not end until 1994. This novel is set in the middle of the apartheid years when a State of Emergency has been declared because of the heightened agitation and sense of outrage amongst opponents of apartheid.

The novel is narrated by a character called Mrs Cullen. She is a retired university professor and has terminal cancer. Largely unaffected by apartheid up until the point at which we meet her, Mrs Cullen is now propelled into the middle of the debate by virtue of Vercueil, a homeless man who has started living in her yard. Because of him she becomes aware of the violence and unsettlement going on around her and begins to feel guilty for being white. She has this in common with the characters in all of Coetzee's novels who all see that the things around them need changing but feel unable to affect the change themselves. The most interesting sub-theme in the novel is the enduring ability of humans to evolve throughout their lives; Mrs Curren is seventh years old and has lived the same life for all of those seventy years; yet seeing what goes on around her in a new way enables her to change her perspective and the way she thinks about everything entirely.

The issue of apartheid is the common theme of all Coetzee's novels. He was an outspoken opponent of apartheid and emigrated to Australia in 2002, becoming a citizen in 2006. Despite the fact that his new home country has provided the inspiration and setting for his more recent work, people really identify him as a South African writer.

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