The Bone People by Keri Hulme

The Blurb On The Back:

There is no blurb on the back.  Instead there are the following quotes:

Set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, bound in Maori myth and entwined with Christian symbols, Miss Hulme’s provocative novel summons power with words, as a conjurer’s spell.  She casts her magic on three fiercely unique character, but reminds us that we, like them, are “nothing more than people”, and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection.”

New York Times Book Review

This novel from a New Zealand writer radiates vitality.  Seizing on material that might seem outlandish, she transforms it into a table that’s as persuasive as it’s haunting.  In this novel, New Zealand’s people, its heritage and landscape are conjured up with uncanny poetry and perceptiveness.

Sunday Times

Clearly it was written with passion and it has inspired passions … Rich, varied and flexible, the story becomes utterly compelling.

New Society

Keri Hulme is a poet.  The power and feeling for nature and the more mystical sides of a dwindling people, the Maoris, will make it a gem providing a whole new range of experience.

Daily Telegraph

You can order THE BONE PEOPLE by Keri Hulme from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Kerewin Holmes is a woman who lives by herself in a tower she had custom-built near a beach on New Zealand’s South Island.  Self-sufficient thanks to a lottery win, she’s estranged from her family and apart from the trips to the local pub, lives largely as a recluse.  She used to fill her time making art but inspiration left her a few years ago and try as she might, she can’t seem to get it back.

Her life changes when she returns from a fishing trip to discover that a young, strange child has broken into her tower.  The boy – Simon Gillayley – is mute, communicating through a form of sign language he developed with his father, Joe, and through writing.  Kerewin’s instinct is to return him to his father as soon as she can, but the boy has injured his foot on a thorn and needs medical help and the telephone operator can’t get hold of his father while his father’s relatives are all out of town.

When Joe finally shows up the next day, Kerewin realises that she’s seen him before down the pub.  When he explains Simon’s history to her – how Joe found him washed up on a beach after a boat capsized during a storm and has semi-adopted him – she slowly begins to thaw, even though Joe also warns her that Simon is wayward and wilful, prone to thieving and smashing things up.  The three of them gradually form a friendship with Kerewin’s tower offering a refuge to Simon when he doesn’t want to go to school and the woman gently quizzing him on what he remembers from the boat and his life before Joe found him.

But Joe and Simon have been hiding a very dark secret from Kerewin and it’s one that threatens to destroy what’s left of each of their broken lives …

Keri Hulme’s debut literary novel won the Booker Prize in 1985 and it’s easy to see why, given the fluid, lyrical writing that draws on Māori beliefs.  However, this story of three deeply broken people is not easy to read, especially the scenes of child abuse, and it’s a book that leaves open a number of questions, including Simon’s background and Kerewin’s break with her family, while driving towards a happy-ish ending that didn’t feel deserved.

This is one of those books that’s been hanging around on my bookshelves for years.  My friend lent me her copy back in 2005 and I kept meaning to read it but something else always came up that I wanted to read more.  Partly this is because, although I don’t have anything against literary fiction, I have to say that it doesn’t tend to be my bag.  Literary fiction is generally more character focused than it is plot focused (and I do love me a twisting plot that’s got a lot of action) and the writing tends to be fairly dense and uninviting.  Added to this is the fact that with a few exceptions (Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood being the main one), historically I don’t tend to get on with Booker nominated novels, let alone the winners.

Two things prompted me to finally pick this up (well, three if you include the very polite nagging of my infinitely patient friend): firstly Keri Hulme’s death at the end of 2021 and secondly the fact that THE BONE PEOPLE was chosen as one of the reads for this year’s Platinum Jubilee.

I came into the book knowing absolutely nothing about it other than that it was critically acclaimed and had won the Booker and that Hulme was a poet.  The edition that my friend had lent me had no synopsis to it at all.  As such, I did find this difficult to get into.  The opening chapters plunge you straight in with no hint on who you are meeting or what’s going on and it took me about 70 pages before I got used to Hulme’s style, which involves a fair amount of head hopping between characters as she moves through the scenes.

Once I did get used to the style though, it got easier and you realise that this is basically a story about three broken people.  Kerewin is someone who should have it all thanks to a lottery win that’s enabled her to travel, learn new skills and spend her time however she likes, but who is instead alienated from her family and finds herself cut off from her own creativity.  Joe has never gotten over the death of his wife and child (who each died from flu a few months after Joe rescued Simon from the beach) and his inability to get Simon to behave as he wishes, coupled with a tendency to drink, means that he takes his anger and frustration out on the boy with violent beatings.  Simon in turn is traumatised by what happened to him before and during his time on the boat that sank while his mutism (which comes across in the book as psychological rather than physical given that he can sing and make noises) and is desperate for love and stability but his frustration with the world around him drives him as well to violent acts.  

Unfortunately, for me part of the problem with the book is that while you get enough details to understand why Joe is the way he is (with Hulme taking care to let him explain his backstory at various points), you never really get to the bottom of what happened to Kerewin or Simon to make them as they are.  Hulme flirts with Simon’s background, alluding to a connection with Irish aristocracy and a drug-taking singer father, but you never find out why he was on that boat or why no one has come looking for him.  Similarly, Kerewin’s break with her family is never explored – there’s a suggestion that it’s she who pushed them away given her solitary nature and inability to connect (indeed, her loquacious nature is in itself designed to keep people at a distance), but it doesn’t go very far.

The other problem with the book is the depiction of the child abuse.  The scenes where Hulme shows you the violence meted out by Joe on Simon are very difficult to read, not least because of Simon’s reaction to them.  However both Kerewin and Joe also, in my view, abuse the boy by allowing him to get drunk and smoke.  I know that this was written in the 1980s and it was a different time, but letting children get blitzed on alcohol and having a smoke wasn’t normal even back then and when Kerewin discovers what Joe has been doing and, after a particularly awful assault, begins to think of her own complicity, she never considers whether she was abusing the boy by letting him drink.  Of course, part of the point here is that she is so broken and disconnected that she doesn’t consider it, but it’s still really difficult to read.

Kerewin and Joe both have Māori heritage and I enjoyed the way Hulme weaves this into the text, incorporating Māori language and also spiritual beliefs (notably in the final quarter of the book).  I wanted to read more of Joe’s family, some of whom – notably Piri – suspect what’s going on and are on at him to stop it while others, such as the sinister Luce – use it to wind Joe up.  Luce in particular feels like a hanging thread in the novel, tying it in to an allusion to sexual abuse (which is picked up through a strand involving Simon having been in contact with a known child molester and through a hint as to Joe’s background) and I wanted to see him incorporated more into the story given Hulme seems to indicate he’s a devil-like character.

I did think that the last quarter of the book, which sees each of Kerewin and Joe do penance and heal in their own way, to be a little rushed and unearned.  Simon’s journey was more interesting and heart-rending but it’s noticeable that he is the only character of the three who is not encouraged to reflect and change, rather he is encouraged to exacerbate and continue to be as difficult and disruptive as he can be.  As a result, he’s the only character who doesn’t have any growth – he’s there purely for the adults to learn from, which I found a bit unfulfilling.

Ultimately, I can see why this book was such a critical success and if you’re into literary fiction then it’s definitely worth a look.  However, the subject matter meant that this just wasn’t my thing and as such, although I’m glad to have read it, I’m also quite relieved to be able to finally return it to my friend.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s