Life and Times of Michael K – Book Review

The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 1-

Michael K’s hare lip is the first thing everyone notices about him – a disfigurement that sets him apart and causes his mother to institutionalize him at a young age. This physical defect seems to set the tone for Micahel’s life of isolation and a turning inward of himself. As an adult, Michael finds work as a gardener in the city of Cape Town; later as his mother’s health deteriorates he decides to return to the country and the home of her birth. But a civil war makes this journey a challenge in more ways than one. Michael and his mother do not have papers to leave the city, they don’t have reliable transportation, and they must avoid armed guards and roadblocks. When Michael’s mother dies along the way, Michael is left with her ashes and the determination to reach his destiny.

This is a disturbing and revealing novel about the strength of the human spirit to not only endure, but to overcome physical obstacles in the discovery of self. Michael’s connection to the earth, his desire to grow his own food, becomes his sole purpose of living.

His deepest pleasure came at sunset when he turned open the cock at the dam wall and watched the stream of water run down its channels to soak the earth, turning it from fawn to deep brown. It is because I am a gardener, he tough, because that is my nature. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 59-

Coetzee’s writing is vivid in its descriptions. The sense of place is strong, which makes this novel a somber look at South Africa. The human suffering, the pointlessness of the re-education camps, the cruelty of the military – all resound heavily on the pages of this book.  Michael stands out, not only because he is physically marred, but because he possesses a peace within that those around him lack. A doctor who treats Michael in hospital seems to be the only character who identifies what makes Michael special.

I am the only one who sees you for the original soul you are. I am the only one who cares for you. I alone see you as neither a soft case for a soft camp nor a hard case for a hard camp but a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sarcophagus, murmuring behind that clownish mask. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 151-

As with all of Coetzee’s novels, Life and Times of Michael K is not light reading. In many ways it is depressing; but ultimately it captures the beauty of the human soul.


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    • Anonymous on February 18, 2008 at 14:01

    I just read Slow Man, by very first Coetzee book. I have to admit that I thought it was awful and I’m hesitant to read any more of his stuff. This book sounds interesting, but I just don’t know if I can handle any more of him this year.

    • Anonymous on February 18, 2008 at 15:20

    He is not for everyone…if you didn’t like Slow Man, you probably won’t like this one either. I have to admit that Coetzee is not my favorite author, although I find him thought provoking.

    • Anonymous on February 19, 2008 at 22:50

    Sounds like a very thought-provoking read. I am adding this one to this list now.

    • Anonymous on February 22, 2008 at 18:51

    Kim: I’ll look forward to seeing what you think of it 🙂

    • Anonymous on February 23, 2008 at 10:42

    Last year I read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and didn’t like it because the character’s weren’t that well fleshed out. I wonder if this book does a better job with a somewhat similar theme.

    • Anonymous on February 23, 2008 at 12:02

    Deb: I read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter as well – but this book is very, very different … Have you read Coetzee’s books before? They are tough sometimes, but he *does* flesh out his characters quite well. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts if you read this one.

    • Anonymous on February 24, 2008 at 02:54

    Thanks for the review. I’ve haven’t read a Coetzee’ book yet, but have a few on my TBR. I’m going to add this one as well.

    • Anonymous on February 27, 2008 at 11:18

    Teddy: Coetzee takes a little getting used to…his books are never easy reads, but they pay off in the end. I’ll look forward to reading your review after you’ve read this one.

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