The Bone People – Keri Hulme

The Bone People by Keri Hulme is the 1985 Booker Prize winner. It is set on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

This is my seventh Booker, and I am taken aback with how much it pulled me in.
I cannot remember the last time a book over 500 pages long has kept me coming back for more without feeling fatigued and, frankly, bored because the plot is meandering all over the place.

I worry that my review and response to this novel is compromised somewhat by the fact that the setting and the culture is so familiar.  I cannot say that a number of aspects of character behaviour sat well with me, nor am I comfortable with the depth of character background provoking those behaviours.  However, I was bowled over by the language and quirky structure that Hulme chose to use.  As she says in the preface of the edition that I read:

The editor should have ensured a uniformity? Well, I was lucky with my editors, who respected how I feel about…oddities. For instance, I think the shape of words brings a response from the reader – a tiny, subconscious, unacknowledged but definite response.  “OK” studs a sentence. “Okay” is a more mellow flowing word when read silently. “Bluegreen” is a meld, conveying a colour neither blue nor green but both: “blue-green” is a two-colour mix.

And so it is with her printed novel.  She has clearly handpicked her words as she has written them.  They are not throwaways or fillers.  It was this that prompted me to rate this 5 stars over at Goodreads.  I would have given it 4.5 as there are aspects that did not sit so well with me, but it definitely deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Now that I have gone about this aboutface, lets return to the beginning and tell you a little bit about the actual story.

The plot starts with the meeting of Simon P.Gillayley, a roughly seven year old mute boy, and Kerewin Holmes, a reclusive artist.  The third member of the main cast is Joe Gillayley, Simon’s foster father.
Kerewin does not appreciate his intrusion into her self-imposed isolation, but Simon is a persistent child and is drawn to her.  As is his father, Joe.  She reluctantly begins to get to know their unorthodox family; Simon was washed up onto the beach following the sinking of a boat offshore, Joe finds him as part of the search for survivors and together with his wife fosters him when no clue to his identity is found.

Simon is a difficult, intelligent but frustrated child.  He is isolated from his peers through being mute and the response that draws out of others.  Joe is intelligent but feels like a failure in many ways but especially in the loss of his wife and their son to influenza, and withdraws into varying degrees of alcoholism.   Kerewin is experiencing creative block following a large lottery win and estrangement from her family.

The novel is broken into four sections.  The first three follows an interrelated narrative of the growth of their three-way relationship while the last section follows their individual journeys.

In the first three sections we are taken along and given access to the dysfunction and damage each of the three is suffering with and the solutions (isolation, alcoholism and violence) they choose to employ in order to cope.  Some of which behaviours, especially as a parent, are completely unpalatable reading.  Yet, in a similar way to The White Tiger, I found that I felt oddly detached about it and that it did not make me less sympathetic to their struggles.
At the end of this section you begin to wonder where things could lead and what is left to say as an irreversible and seemingly insurmountable incident occurs.  After this we are taken on the individual journeys each of the three characters make until we come to the conclusion of the novel.

I cannot, in good conscience, tell you very much about the plot without spoiling the process of reading.  This is especially true of the incident towards the end of the third section.  So instead I will resort to sharing the way Hulme writes and the language she chooses for her characters.  I found it compelling and unlike my usual response to poetic-style prose, greatly enjoyed reading it.  Perhaps my tastes are changing?

A passage where Kerewin is contemplating her recent attempts at art.

She stares at the screaming painting.

The candlelight wavers.
The painting screams silently on.
She hates it.
It is intensely bitter.

O unjoy, is that all I can do? Show forth my misery?

All the fire has gone.
She is back in the haggard ashdead world.
She picks up the painting and slides it away behind her desk.
There are a lot of drawings, paintings there.
The new one can scream in company.
And what’s the use of keeping them?
A pile for keening over?
“You are nothing,” says Kerewin coldly. “You are nobody, and will never be anything, anyone.”
And her inner voice, the snark, which comes into its own during depressions like this, says,

And you never have been anything at anytime, remember?
And the next line is…

“Shut up,” says Kerewin aloud to herself.  “I know I am very stupid.” But not so stupid as to take this.

I am worn, down to the raw nub of my soul.
Now is the time, o bitter beer, soothe my spirit;
smooth mouth of whisky, tell me lies of truth;
but better still, sweet wine, be harbinger of deep and dreamless sleep…

In between passages like this there is a very good rendition of “Kiwi” vernacular.  So you mix these musings with some slang, blunt language and a regular bit of swearing.

Eclectic? Yes.
Poetic? I would be game to say maybe just a bit.
Gritty?  Yes, in parts.
Mystical?  Yes, again in parts.
Touching? Yes, throughout.

On a personal note, I am sometimes a big sook.  And one reason I was drawn to be an anthropologist/prehistorian was a feeling for the past and the mental connection an object gives between the person looking at it in the present and the person who made it or used it in the past*.  So when the novel, and Joe, comes to the point where he is introduced to the mauri/mauriora and its supposed importance, I almost burst into tears.

But like an unseen current, there’s a darker thought –

Maybe a priestly canoe? A live god? A live mauriora?

He says, with real bewilderment,
“What can I say?  What do I do? I’ve seen them in museums, Tiaki. Pierced stones and old wooden sticks where the gods were supposed to live.  Where the vital part of a thing was supposed to rest.  But aren’t they temporary?  And can’t they look after themselves?”
The old man mumbles,
“Not this one…it is the heart of this country.  The heart of the land.”

Yes, even as I type this out I am getting a prickling sensation in my eyes.  Indeed I am a big sook.

Anyway, a solid 4.5 stars from me.

* I think you either get this connection – that a real, living human created something you may be holding in your hot little hand a millennia ago – or you don’t.

One thought on “The Bone People – Keri Hulme

  1. Totally agree with your rating here – I found this to be a novel I couldn’t put down, and some of the words stayed with me for a while afterwards.
    My sister finally read it last year and said she didn’t know why she’d avoided it for so long; I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been touched by it.


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