Michael K., born with a hair lip, is consigned at an early age to an institution for handicapped and feebleminded children. Academics are difficult; however, he learns about gardening and when released from the institution is employed as a gardener. His love of the earth enables him to take on greater responsibilities and a higher level gardening position.
The story takes place in South Africa during a period of conflict. Yet, save for the mention of Cape Town, South Africa is not mentioned. Neither is there a mention of who is black and who is white.
K rarely sees his mother who works for an elderly couple and takes care of their residence. She is given a place to live—a rather unpleasant basement dwelling. With all the unrest she loses her job and shortly after becomes ill. She needs Michael. He leaves his job and takes on the task of taking care of her. Her wish is to return to her childhood home and Michael is determined to take her “home”.
At first he follows all the proper channels, applies for a permit, and waits for the necessary papers, which will allow them to travel. Without those papers they will be unable to cross-checkpoints. After a frustrating wait, he decides to leave the city without a permit. His mother, no longer able to walk, is pulled in a cart he has constructed from found parts.
The trip is fraught with difficulties, some physical and some the result of police controlling the roads. His mother cannot survive the harsh life they must endure and she becomes ill and doesn’t have the stamina to survive. Without his knowledge she is cremated and her ashes are then given to Michael. In his mind he must continue to her childhood home—he’s promised his mother.
He finds the village and also finds an abandoned farm. He sets about gardening with some seeds he’s discovered. All he really wants to do is cultivate his small patch of land and live on the food he grows. This becomes impossible when soldiers destroy his plot. Eventually he is taken to a camp for the unemployed where he refuses to eat and is unable to partake in the work details—or forced labor He only wants to eat what he has grown.
Both sides abrogate Michael’s freedom. Everyone is made a prisoner by the inability of people to recognize the humanity of all people.
This is a powerful book—a book about decisions and the results of those decisions. A book about moral rights.