The Bone People by Keri Hulme [A Review]

In The Bone People, an chance encounter breaks a man, a woman and a child out of their respective isolations and draws them into the same orbit. Each carries a past they cannot let go, even as it continues to make them suffer. Each still has a way to go before they can accept any path towards friendship, family and happiness.

Cover image of The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Kerewin Holmes lives a solitary existence in an isolated part of coastal New Zealand. She much prefers to live this way, though, to an observer, it would be difficult to call her happy. Living in a ‘tower house’ by the beach, she spends her days fishing and lazing and is often found in the local pub late at night drinking alone.

It’s an odd macabre kind of existence. While the nights away in drinking, and fill the days with petty killing. Occasionally drink out a day and then go and hunt all night, just for the change.

She shakes her head.

Who cares? That’s the way things are now. (I care.)

Once, Kerewin had been scratching out a living on minimum wage before she won a lottery. Unexpected wealth allowed her to indulge her latent love of high culture, art, music and literature. She consults the I Ching and can quote from Rumi. In her unique house she keeps a library, several guitars hang along a wall and among her art collection is a large print of Fujiware Takanobu’s famous portrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Kerewin, though, is a frustrated artist. Now in her 30’s, her knowledge and appreciation, not to mention ample time and resources, has not translated into production. Often, in a flurry of inspiration, she will pull out a canvas and paints and set to work. She’ll go to bed satisfied at having found a release in expression only to wake in the morning and, seeing her work with fresh eyes, decide that it is trash and destroys it with sadness.

“These are the only things in my life that are real to me now. Not people. […] Not relationships. Not families. Paintings. That remind me I could.”

She is sliding them back behind the desk, screamers and mysteries and the weeping loving pieces of her sea and land. She holds out her hand for the self-portrait.

“But, something. Something has died. Isn’t there now. I can’t paint.” There are tears in her voice, but none in her eyes. “I am dead inside.”

He still holds the painting.

“May I have it?”

There are tears in his eyes.

Returning from spearfishing in the tide pools one day, Kerewin finds a boy has broken into her house. Unable or unwilling to speak, the boy has a pendant around his neck that identifies him as Simon and gives a number for Kerewin to call. The boy’s father is out, a family friend might show up later to pick him up, in the meantime Kerewin is going to have to take care of the boy who seems to go missing often and has a history of causing trouble.

This is the last thing Kerewin wants. She has no experience with children and does not particularly like them. Kerewin is itching to start drinking and the boy is cramping her style. She makes some food and, with nothing else to do, teaches Simon chess. Later, James, a friend of Simon’s father, arrives. He calls Simon ‘Haimona’ – ‘Himi’ – and takes him home saying Simon’s father, Joe, will visit when he can.

Relieved to be absolved of him, it is only after they are gone that Kerewin realises Simon has left behind a sandal and taken the black queen! It seems he won’t be so easy to get rid of.

When Kerewin meets Joe she is a little surprised to see that he is Maori given that blonde Simon is clearly not. Joe explains that he is not Simon’s biological father; he adopted Simon after the boy was found washed upon a shore after a boat sinking that left no survivors. Joe is a widower and comes across as awkward and bitter, not a natural father, but friendly. When he catches Simon with one of Kerewin’s rings in his pocket, he scolds the boy in Maori, not realising Kerewin is fluent in Maori. Despite appearances, Kerewin is part Maori.

Kerewin, blue-eyed, brown-haired, and mushroom pale, looked back at him. “If I was in America, I’d be an octoroon.” Paused. “It’s very strange, but whereas by blood, flesh and inheritance, I am an eighth Maori, by heart, spirit and inclination, I feel all Maori. Or,” she looked down into the drink, “I used to. Now it feels like the best part of me has got lost in the way I live.”

Suppressing an internal monologue of misgiving and annoyance, Kerewin maintains a friendly outward appearance to Joe and Simon, insisting it was no trouble looking after Simon and not to worry about the ring. By the time they say their goodbyes, both Joe and Kerewin feel they have made a new friend.

Kerewin and Joe effortlessly draw each other into their respective worlds. It is a welcome change from the loneliness of their previous lives. Any intentions beyond that is something they probably don’t dare to consider even to themselves. But the mysteries of Simon linger. Where is his family? Why won’t he speak? And why does his body bear the marks of violence?

First published in 1984, The Bone People has a history that sounds a little cliché to many book lovers – a novel that took years to write, rejected by almost every publisher, an author who stubbornly refused to make any editorial changes followed by the redemption of winning a major literary award – the 1985 Booker Prize. But it is also a history that provokes a lot of questions, especially after one reads the book.

The style of The Bone People is a little difficult for me to describe. To say that it is sometimes written in stream-of-consciousness, that it shifts perspective from first-person to third; seems inadequate to describe what is going on. Regardless of whether there is a correct term for the methods used, or if that is giving too much credit for a casual approach, the novel is still easy to read and follow, at least as far as the style is concerned, the content is another matter.

One of the enjoyable aspects of the novel was the plentiful infusions of ‘colour’ alongside the story – details of fish and fishing, trees and plants, food and cooking. Together with the many tiny details shared, they bring the story and setting to life.

The novel has some dark moments as well. Kerewin, Joe and Simon each have their pasts, their burdens, baggage and issues. Each can at times seem to be creepy, irrational and unjust; each can conjure empathy as victims or disdain as an offender. Joe, in particular, can show the extremes of love and violence. The story provokes questions about domestic violence, parent-child relations, the interference of family, friends and the state. Some of this can be controversial. Some readers interpret the novel as asking for sympathy and understanding not just for the victim but for the abuser and those who stay silent as well. That was my interpretation too and, understandably, it can be difficult to reconcile.

Hope we can bank on the good old NZ tradition of Don’t Interfere. I know there’s other people here now, and he must have been heard by everyone in every crib along the beach. If anyone thought we were beating him up, and decided to check…

For the first time, it comes to her that she is aiding and abetting the concealment of a criminal offence.

If the novel has a main theme, I would say it lies in the arc the main characters take. Each seems to be holding on to a lost, idealised, past. Each is living an estranged life in isolation. Each can sense, in their unlikely coming together, an opportunity for a happy future. The fact that the three of them are a man, a woman and a child; one Maori, one white, one mixed race; gives that promise a utopian aura and a post-colonial one too. But their individual issues, traumas and traits; make such a utopia an unlikely destination. Their troubles are not over, each will have to suffer more with no guarantee they can emerge intact, alone or together.

“But stay a good friend. Don’t come any closer to me, just say close enough to be always welcome.”  

I said that, while I did not find the style to be a significant barrier, the content might be. That’s because The Bone People contains many impenetrable passages. There are stretches of ambiguous writing where it is difficult to say what, if anything, is being told. It is possible that The Bone People is highly autobiographical; that the man character, Kerewin Holmes, is a substitute for the author, Keri Hulme, and therefore, these elusive passages may only have meaning for her.

I was surprised by how little that mattered to me. Normally I am the sort of reader where elements like this would annoy me, but I read through them with little concern over how to interpret them. I suspect other readers were not so generous and found this aspect distracting, even pretentious. I’m not sure why I looked past them so easily; perhaps I did not want to spoil my enjoyment of the rest of the novel, perhaps I had lower expectations for the novel, perhaps I am guilty of a little kiwi bias.

Overall, I found The Bone People to be an unconventional but enjoyable novel. I enjoyed it more than I have some other Booker Prize winners. But it is fair to say it did not ‘wow’ me, as it has some other readers, as something sure to become a future classic.

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