Tuesday, May 10, 2011

REVIEW: Life & Times of Michael K., by J.M. Coetzee

Life & Times of Michael K., by J.M. Coetzee. Published 1985 by Penguin (Non-Classics). Literary Fiction.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1983, Life & Times of Michael K. is a short yet deeply engrossing novel about a young man, Michael K., wandering alone through the deep countryside of South Africa amidst war and chaos. Michael is a youngish man living with his aging mother in the city as the story opens; hare-lipped, under-educated and somewhat simple, he works as a municipal gardener until his mother takes ill and asks him to take her to the countryside farm where she grew up. Along the way she dies, and Michael is left on his own with little money and few resources. He subsists off the land and passes through a prison-like camp for the poor and dispossessed, all the while trying to maintain his independence and dignity despite a society determined to strip these things away.

The book is divided into three main parts. The first is told entirely from Michael's point of view and Coetzee tells his story meticulously, in great detail and without pause. I thought the lack of chapter breaks would exhaust me but I found his story absolutely riveting. One thing follows on the next, day by day, bit by bit, until Michael has shed almost all the trappings of human society. Then the book changes gear, and Coetzee introduces a new voice and provides an altogether different point of view on Michael. Having spent so much time with him and in such intimate circumstances, it's jarring to have him removed so, pulled away if you will, but I loved this new perspective and the information Coetzee shares with the reader in this way. When we return to Michael in the final section, it's with a renewed appreciation for the challenges he faces and his resources to succeed.

I can't say I was as emotionally challenged by Michael K. as I was by Coetzee's later novel Disgrace (also a Booker winner) but I found Michael K. to be just as riveting, and in some ways, just as draining. We spend so much time in such close proximity to this man and his transformation is so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable, and so convincing as to be inevitable. The excellent second part adds another layer of depth and fascination- not to mention suspense. The fact that Michael's race is never mentioned in a country so charged by racial tension adds another challenge for the reader; Coetzee doesn't make it easy for us to place Michael, or judge him, or anticipate how other characters will do the same. I love how Coetzee can challenge us to think about race without handing us an easy answer.  Highly recommended for readers of literary fiction, Coetzee once again proves himself to be a master of it himself.

I read this for the 2011 Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

8 comments:

Mystica said...

A new one for me!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I read his Duskland and In the Heart of the Country.

bermudaonion said...

Sounds like an author I need to try.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I guess it is Disgrace that always comes to mind when I think of Coetzee, and that one has been on my intended list for some time. I'm thinking that maybe this one would be better to start with. Excellent review.

Jenna (Literature and a Lens) said...

I haven't read anything by Coetzee, but your review makes me want to. Michael's struggles with society sound intriguing. I like that he didn't mention race, because this sounds like an excellent novel for people to put themselves in the shoes of the character and really experience an emotional roller coaster.

Zibilee said...

I loved Disgrace and have been wondering if any of his other books would hold a candle to it. This one sounds very different, but compelling just the same. Coetzee has such an amazing talent and I am glad that you enjoyed this one so much. I am going to be adding it to my wish list right away. Thanks for the excellent and thorough review, Marie!

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I haven't read this author before - interesting overview and to be honest, I'm good with an emotionally or otherwise, draining read! :)

Rayna Elianaa said...

Coetzee is an amazing author.