The narrator of Coetzee’s second novel, In the Heart of the Country, is a virginal white spinster named Magda, who is living at the beginning of the twentieth century on a South African farm with her father and several servants and field hands. Magda’s father is the callous ruler of the farm; his character and the isolation of farm life in South Africa have a decided effect on Magda’s psychology. When her father takes a black mistress, Magda’s reactions are not only extreme, but the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur.
In conventional literary terms, Magda’s narrative may be considered “unreliable,” because of inconsistencies in the sequence of events and in the manner of presentation. For example, in one scene, Magda brutally kills her father and his mistress with an ax while they are in bed; a little later, her father is up and about. A little later still, Magda once again enacts a scenario motivated by both envy and vengeance, shooting her father as he is in the midst of a sexual act; toward the novel’s end, after an elaborate and illegal burial of her father, Magda is nevertheless still conversing with him. There are a variety of sexual encounters, although these seem to arise from Magda’s wishful imagination, rather than as a record of actual happenings. There are sexual undercurrents in her relationships with the two men, her father and the servant Hendrik; even her conversations with Hendrik’s young wife, Klein-Anna, seem filled with erotic tensions, and in one scene, Magda makes a proposition to the couple that suggests the existence of a love triangle. Magda’s narrative, like that of Eugene Dawn and Jacobus Coetzee, is motivated by highly intense and personal wishes and desires. If the accounts themselves appear dubious to the reader, however, they are accurate renditions of the narrator’s troubled psychological state. Coetzee seems to pose this question throughout the novel: What is real, what is reality? At the heart of the journal entries, what is actual may remain forever unknown, but what is certain is the disorientation and alienation that Magda experiences as a result of her life in South Africa.