Keri Hulme has Kai Tahu, Orkney Island and English ancestry. The Bone People was her first novel, and she struggled to find a publisher for it, but it was eventually picked up by the small publishing house Spiral, run by a collective of women – and the book went on to win the Booker Prize in 1985. Itis set on the South Island of New Zealand and follows three characters, each troubled and troubling in their own very particular ways. There is Kerewin Holmes, wealthy hermit-artist, fallen out with her family, who lives in a bizarre tower she’s built by the sea. One day, the boy Simon – exact age unknown – breaks into her tower, beginning a delicate and complex friendship. He brings his father, Joe, into the picture: a man who would have been a preacher but works in a factory. Kerewin is deliberately alone, taciturn and snarky. Simon does not speak, and is not Joe’s biological son, having washed ashore, the lone survivor of a wrecked boat some years prior. And Joe, who lost his wife and their infant son to illness, is raising Simon alone. With the meeting of the three begins the strange entanglement of their lives from which The Bone People is woven.
Māori knowledge-making and stories are the backbone of this beautiful book. Joe is Māori and Kerewin has partly Māori ancestry; Simon’s background is long unknown. And while the well-to-do, well-educated and well-travelled Kerewin delights in other cultures – in music and poetry from elsewhere, in various spiritualities – it is Indigenous epistemologies that give the novel and the story it tells their centre of gravity. The book is threaded through with Māori terms, phrases and exchanges, which are explained in a glossary at the back of the book. Kerewin’s joy in the English language appears to be Hulme’s (the similarity in their names is surely no accident), and the author is at times glib, at times serious, in her skipping allusions, too-clever word play, and rhythmic alliterations. But the book was, for me, at its strongest not when it engaged in this, but when it stayed close to the individual broken people it follows. They emerge slowly but surely, in sincere clarity as real-feeling people – the product of Hulme’s adept handling of character-development, and what having over 500 pages to do it in enables. Their three-dimensionality slowly helped me realise I didn’t have to like them or condone their actions in order to appreciate the story they were allowing to be told. This book was a journey, and not in the sense that it took me on a trip (though there are a few of those), but in that over the course of reading it my relationship to it kept changing: from liking it, to hating it, to loving it; from wanting to redeem the characters, to loathing them, to taking them for what they were. It reminded me of the patience that literature can teach, and how differently a long book makes its effect on a reader.
There are some very difficult scenes in the novel, particularly of violence – and violence against children, so be forewarned. There are moments in it that are bound to make today’s reader uncomfortable, yet there are also ways in which it seems strangely of the now, for instance in its rejection of various forms of heteronormativity. There is some breath-taking work in setting: some of the passages that portray the ocean, the beach, and the country will stay with me for a long time, as will some oddities, like the loving detail in descriptions of fishing, food preparation, and painting. The Bone People is not always easy, but it’s absolutely worth the trouble.
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