Thursday, 14 March 2013

Foe by J. M. Coetzee (2/5)

First published: 1986
Page count: 157

The back says: Some time in the second decade of the eighteenth century one Susan Barton told Mr Daniel Foe of her hard and unusual life – most particularly the span of time she spent cast away on an island with a man called Cruso and his mutilated negro servant Friday. This is the story of her story and how it fared at the hands of Foe; distorted truth and inventor of histories.

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 by renowned journalist Daniel Defoe. Enormously successful, it is the supposedly true story of a man stranded for many years on an island in the Atlantic with only his servant Man Friday for company. No mention of Susan Barton is made in it.

I say: This was almost as boring a read as the novel it was based on, Robinson Crusoe. And by almost I mean that it didn’t have all of the elements that annoyed me with Robinson Crusoe,

i.e. everything.

In this version, Susan is stranded on the same island and Cruso and Friday and claims that Cruso told her that Friday had his tongue cut out by slave traders and that they’ve been together ever since their ship sank. According to Susan Cruso lies about everything, doesn’t give a jot about being saved, and is quite unpleasant. Despite all this she allows him to have sex with her; not because she wants to but because she feels like she might as well let him since he’s been without a woman for so long.

Say what!?

They finally get saved (no thanks to Cruso, who dies on the voyage back) and when they land in England Susan feels responsible for Friday so she decides to stay with him. She looks up Foe and writes letters about her life on the island, which he then turns into the story we all know – full of lies and make believe. After being a complete idiot for a few months Susan shacks up with Foe, who tries to teach Friday to write and read. A lot of other random silliness happens that made me want to gouge my eyes out, but I rather enjoy seeing, so I didn’t.

Needless to say, this was a serious work of meh and Coetzee should have left it as sad fan fiction entry on some obscure message board.


I didn’t enjoy the writing because it felt too much like Coetzee was trying to copy Defoe, which can never be a good thing. The premise sounded like a good idea – or at least I thought so when I bought it – but it was executed in a very bad way. Luckily it was a only mere 157 pages, which may still have been 150 too many.


  1. I have to say that I have never felt the urge to read Robinson Cruso. Stranded on a island just doesn't appeal. It's one of those classics I will happy continue in my ignorance of.

    I'm surprised at Coetzee. I haven't read him but based on how much people rave about him I would have thought he would be above this type of thing. Maybe he just has a genuine love of the original. Will be avoiding this one.

    1. Don't ever read Robinson Crusoe - unless it's the abridged children's version. The original one made me violent.

      And I've also only heard good things about Coatzee, but I'm not sure how I feel about him. This is my third read and one was great while the other was meh. Not sure why he wrote this, but then I'm not sure why he wrote The Master of Petersburg which is about Dostoevsky and a students he wrote about in Devils. It's all quite peculiar.

      I'm giving him one more chance.

    2. I'll still keep him on the radar. Did get me thinking though. I wonder what other writers would write if they were asked to write some fanfiction. Neil Gaimon has sort of already done that by writing episodes of Doctor Who (although they were well done in my view so can it really count as fanfcition).

    3. Hmmm, that's a really interesting question. It'd be fun if they actually did that. I'm sure I've read some other fanfiction type literature before, but I can't think of it now. I do have a silly book that is supposed to be Mr Darcy's Diary that I read about two entries from and then wanted to throw away. It was embarrassingly bad.

    4. I've read a few similar. PD James wrote a crime book set just after the end of P&P my mum loved it but I hated it and gave up very quickly. Susan Hill wrote one on the events after Rebecca. I liked it at the time although it was years and years ago.

    5. Yeah, if the author writes in his/her own voice, then that's generally fine. I just don't like it when they try to write like the original author.

      And there are so many Jane Austen inspired crap everywhere it makes me sad. What, you can't make up your own people? Isn't that usually about 50% of what being a writer entails? I'm looking at you EL James.

      Mind you, I bought that Android Karenina in last year's book sale. It was only £1 so maybe I'll read it sometime in the next few years.