Jonathan Ullyot at The Point:
Coetzee’s title suggests an allegory or a contemporary retelling of the Christ narrative. Creative re-imaginings of the historical Jesus have been popular ever since late antiquity and most recently after The Da Vinci Code, itself a recycling of the sensational (and almost completely unfounded) conspiracy theories in the nonfiction work, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. José Saramago wrote an alternative history of Christ, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which went so far as to depict a teenage Jesus being tempted to have sex with a sheep. Norman Mailer wrote a very orthodox retelling of the life of Jesus in the first person,The Gospel According to the Son. (He followed it with a creative retelling of the childhood of Hitler, The Castle in the Forest.) More recently, Philip Pullman wrote The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which depicts two brothers: Jesus, a moral and god-fearing man, and Christ, a schemer who wants to build a powerful church. Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary imagines that Mary did not believe that her son was also the son of God and that she refused to collaborate with the writers of the gospels.
Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is a story about a bratty kid in a developing socialist country doted on by two very unsympathetic parents. It is replete with philosophical dialogues about the nature of familial love and the proper way of unloading grain from a ship. Jesus is never mentioned. It is not what we expect to find when we pick up a novel called The Childhood of Jesus.