Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians, 1982; Life and Times of Michael K, 1984) has never before written so undeliberate and passionate a novel as this, an agonizing valediction by an old woman--a South African classics teacher, dying of cancer--in the form of a letter to her daughter in America. Mrs. Curren accepts her doctor's report of terminal disease with resignation, returning to her house only to fined a vagrant sleeping in the yard, an unwashed isolato named (she eventually finds out) Vercueil whom she is too weak to turn out. Vercueil is soon joined by others, in particular the teen-age son of her black housekeeper Florence. The son, Bheki, is wanted by the Security Forces--and Bheki's eventual violent murder, and Vercueil's wraithlike, eternal presence, become the poles of emotion for Mrs. Curren's dwindling days. After the police-murder, she even vows to immolate herself in public, so horrified and depressed is she by the barbarism--and what does she have to lose? She cannot do it, ultimately--and the book steadily takes on the nature of a testament to the dinginess of life and the life-denying nature of South African reality. Coetzee overwrites as the book goes on; Mrs. Curren's speeches grow more philosophical and eloquent, with Vercueil's silences a theatrical device. But overall this is truly a moving, harrowing recitative--the work of a masterly writer.