This year’s Nobel laureate for literature, South Africa’s J.M. Coetzee, has won respect with sparely written but unsparingly observed tales of emotional struggle, often tempered with a fabulist quality. In 1982’s ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” a nameless diplomat stationed in a fictional country about to be overthrown begins to question his belief system. In 1999’s ”Disgrace,” which earned Coetzee his second Booker Prize, a down-and-out professor and his daughter are brutally attacked and traumatized. Cheerful stuff it’s not, but Coetzee’s presentation of his wrecked characters is powerful and alluringly compassionate.
So what to make of his latest novel? The title heroine is a successful Australian writer in her 70s; the book is structured around various addresses she delivers. But few people look forward to sitting through a lecture, no matter how thought-provoking (and these are). More off-putting is that Costello is, at best, difficult. While this is clearly intended — she compares society’s treatment of animals to the Nazi slaughter of the Jews — Costello’s description of her sister applies equally to herself: ”intolerant and rigid and bullying.” Despite this near miss, readers can seek out Coetzee’s 15 other books and see why the Swedes gave him the thumbs-up.