The Bone People: Eccentrics at work

The Bone People, Keri Hulme, 1984

  • New Zealand, #7
  • Hardback, borrowed from Brent Library, London
  • Read May 2015
  • Rating: 5/5
  • Recommended for: People who have been told they’re too intense; self-identified freaks

Generally, I try to write these reviews without major spoilers, but I think it will be impossible to discuss The Bone People without getting into some of the major plot points. I’ll save it for the last paragraph, and put another warning before that, so feel free to read on until then. But if you’re thinking of reading the book, stop there, because the mystery and suspense is part of what makes the book so readable.

Los Angeles, 2005

And it is readable, despite the convoluted language and the wandering plot. After four short but bewildering prologues, you’re dropped right into the story and by the time you’ve figured out what’s going on you’re hooked. Kerewin Holmes, an eccentric half-Maori artist who is estranged from her family due to some unexplained but cataclysmic falling-out, lives alone in a tower on the beach in rural New Zealand. When a mute boy named Simon Peter (literally) trespasses on her solitude, she is reluctantly drawn into a relationship with both him and his Maori foster father, Joe. The perspective shifts frequently between first and third person and between the main characters. The effect is disorienting, but in a good way. The sense of unreality, and Hulme’s finely judged sense of what to reveal and what to hold back, keeps you reading, wanting to know more.

One of the things I like about this book is its engagement with Maori identity and spirituality. In the other books by Maori authors I’ve read for this project (Once Were Warriors, The Whale Rider, and Tu, to be discussed in upcoming reviews) being Maori is a mixed blessing at best. It can be a source of pride and happiness, but it is also a cause of displacement. Those books, as well as Maori Girl, focus primarily on the struggle for Maori people to find their place in a changing, white-dominated society, where too often they are pushed to the fringes and left behind. The Bone People portrays Maori heritage as an entirely positive thing, a source of strength and community. Hulme’s incorporation of ancient Maori religion emphasizes the connection that we as humans have to the land we inhabit, and the way that it can be a source of spirituality that can heal the deepest of wounds.

The novel is far from flawless. Kerewin in particular is far too fantastic—a perpetual bad ass, kung fu fighter, mystic, brilliant intellectual, consummate fisherman, and The Best Artist in the World (though her works, as described by Hulme, sound laughably bad and incredibly 80s in style). She asks no quarter and gives none. Hulme obviously sees her misanthropy and navel-gazing as virtues, but they don’t really read that way. And her constant monologue as she talks to herself, the acrobatic flip-flopping from poetry to gutterspeak, can seem like a poor imitation of James Joyce. The pace takes a nosedive two-thirds of the way through the novel, just when you most want to find out what happens next.

But the genius of the book is enough to overcome these faults. Hulme makes you love the book’s three protagonists, despite their flaws (both their character flaws and their flaws as characters). And her voice, even if she says so herself (in her incredibly off-putting preface), is startlingly original and complex. My advice for readers would be to allow yourself to be swept up in the story, feel the way that Hulme wants you to feel and suspend your critical ear for a few hours. But think about it critically afterward—for reasons I will discuss in the spoiler-filled paragraphs below. Stop reading here if you don’t want to know what happens in the novel.

St. Louis, 2004

If the book has an unredeemable flaw, it is in its treatment of child abuse. The plot hinges around Joe’s horrific battery of Simon. When the abuse is revealed, and Joe loses his custody of Simon, you find yourself rooting for their reunion. Because Hulme does such an incredible job of pulling you into her created reality, you find yourself convinced that no one else will really love Simon, or care for him, or understand him, the way Joe will (perhaps with Kerewin’s help). Which is exactly what an abuser wants their victim to think—that the victim has no other option, that no one else can ever love them the way the abuser does. Kerewin even gives voice to some of the worst of rationalizations for abuse—telling Joe that hitting Simon is a sign of the love and care he has for the boy. It’s pretty chilling to read those words and feel like the author wants you to agree with her. It is possible that Hulme wants us to experience this discomfort; by making us sympathize with the abuser, she does not allow us to dismiss him as a monster, and invites us to imagine a more creative solution to abuse than the strict separation of abuser and victim.

Her proposed solution is a rekindled spirituality and the support of family. Joe and Simon can live happily together with family (and Kerewin and her family) around to watch over them; Joe is perhaps cured of his abusive tendencies by his penitential walkabout and his newfound stewardship of the land. This makes sense in Hulme’s magical world, and we are suppose to accept it as a happy solution. But I don’t think that a subject as serious as child abuse can be dealt with in such a metaphorical way. The more I thought about this book, the more deeply uncomfortable I was with its apparent conclusions. Discomfort isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, and I fully intend to read the book again, to engage with that discomfort, to examine the book’s message and my own response. But not until I’ve recovered from my first reading of it–which is going to take a while.

Los Angeles, 2005

4 thoughts on “The Bone People: Eccentrics at work

  1. Wow, I agree so much with everything you’ve said here! It was such an amazing and intense read and the ending made me so mad. I’m supposed to trust that everything is all going to be okay now? When the classic behavior of abusers is to say, “I’ve changed, I won’t do it again, come back”?

    Liked by 1 person

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