Keri Hulme’s 1985 Booker Prize winning book The Bone People is one of those novels for which the word unorthodox would be a woefully inadequate description.
The result is an extraordinary novel that was 12 years in the making and rejected by most publishers who thought it unwieldy and too different. Even those who were interested would publish it only on condition she made severe edits (she refused). It saw the light of day only because of a small publishing firm in New Zealand whose owners came from the same Maori tribe as Hulme.
The Bone People went on to become of the most controversial winners of the Booker Prize, deeply dividing critical opinion between those who felt Hulme had broken new literary ground and those who considered its quasi spiritual aspects pretentious and its prose barely comprehensible.
With that background in my head, I approached The Bone People with trepidation. The mystical tones of the opening didn’t do much for my nervousness level but I persevered and eventually the book began to take hold. Yes there were many times when I was completely bewildered as tenses changed mid paragraph, punctuation was omitted and interior monologues were introduced without any preamble to indicate which character was actually speaking. Without the helpful glossary there were many sections of dialogue that would have been completely meaningless. And yes there was a higher quota of pseudo mysticism than I can normally tolerate. But — and it is a big but — there was a quality about this novel that kept drawing me back to it, making me want to keep reading even if I wasn’t sure exactly what I was reading.
The Bone People is essentially a tale of three broken, battered and bruised individuals and how they try to build a family out of their pain and suffering. Kerewin Holmes (note the resonance with the author’s name) is a painter who has cut off all connections with her family, She lives in solitude in a beachside home called The Tower, spending her days fishing and trying, but failing, to paint anything worthwhile. Her life is fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. Into her home and her life stumbles Simon, a deeply disturbed and mute six year old boy whose anti social habits of stealing and violence against classmates have made him notorious in the small island community. Yet Keri warms to him and to Joe, a Maori who informally adopted the boy when he found him washed ashore after a yachting accident. Joe is contending with his own demons having lost his own child and wife shortly after Simon’s appearance. Slowly the trio form a bond but its strength is tested when Holmes learns the truth about the scars on Simon’s body. Her discovery has devastating consequences.
The question Hulmes poses in the novel is not simply whether the rupture between the members of this trio can be healed, but whether they can each find peace with themselves and with the world. Each, she seems to suggest, must endure more suffering before they can be made whole again. Home and the ties of family are twin pillars of hope for these three sufferers. As Simon says at one point late in the book:
He had endured it all. Whatever they did to him, and however long it was going to take, he could endure it. Provided that at the end he could go home. ……if he can’t go home, he might as well not be. They might as well not be, because they only make sense together. We have to be together. If we are not, we are nothing. We are broken.
It’s a disturbing book with some shocking moments of violence. Counter-balancing the tension are moments of pure comedy and moments of reflection in which Hulme’s writing takes on a more poetic tone. It was unfortunate that in the last quarter of the book she introduced some semi-mystical figures and mysterious potions to help get towards a resolution. It’s such a shame that Hulme resisted all advice to edit the text because her book was strong enough without these contrivances.
Hulme has achieved something however that is remarkable. It will either leave you captivated or completely bewildered and frustrated. What you won’t do is to forget it since this is one book that leaves a lasting impression.