Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee – 1983 Booker Prize Winner

The 1983 Booker winner takes us to South Africa at the time of the Civil War there.

This is a truly exceptional book which, at times, reminded me of Steinbeck. It has that same sad feel to it accompanied by a sparse but studied use of description and character that lives with you.

Michael K is an unfortunate individual hampered in life by a minor facial deformity – a hare lip, for which he is a social outcast from the very beginning of his life.  He undertakes a long and tough journey and has many setbacks along the way, including the death of his mother. 

In many books it feels like you are watching the scenes unfold from outside, as with a film or TV programme, but with Michael K you are in there with him. You see and feel every painful step, every setback and every small success. You delight with Michael in his little victories and suffer every defeat.

I very much identified with Michael, though our lives could not be more different. It is a highly skilled writer who can achieve that level of empathy and to so it so effortlessly.

Michael’s story begins when his sick mother indicates she wants to return to her childhood home in Prince Albert. This journey would, in normal times, be straightforward but in this time of conflict proves tough. Failing to get the necessary permit, Michael sets off on foot, pushing his mother in front in a home-made buggy. He is challenged along the way in various ways, not least when his mother dies.

After a short spell Michael continues the journey alone, aiming to scatter his mother’s ashes at her old home, where he intends to live. After many tribulations he arrives at the small holding he believes to be his mother’s former home. But nothing is as he expected it to be and nothing happens in the way he hoped it to.

Throughout his journey he meets with brutality in various forms and from various parties. He contends with extreme hardship and is unjustly treated whenever he encounters other people. But there are moments of tenderness, which both melt the heart but also contrast starkly with the brutality he faces.

Towards the end of the book a part two sees a switch of point of view to one who has sought to help Michael. This defies “normal” convention in a novel but it works extremely well in exploring questions about Michael that the reader may also have built up. Does it provide answers? I’ll leave that for you to decide. 

Part 3 reverts back to Michael’s point of view to bring a moving and captivating story to a close. No spoilers here.

This wonderful book will leave it’s mark on you. Although deeply sad it is also strangely uplifting. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.