Set in beautiful New Zealand, Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Bone People explores Māori culture and universal human truths through three unlikely people brought together to confront brutal aspects of themselves.
The Bone People
Originally published: 1984, New Zealand
Rating: 2 = At Your Own Risk
Set in New Zealand, Hulme’s story centers on Kerewin, a hermit living in a tower, whose life is disrupted by a 7-year-old mute boy, Simon, sneaking into her home. Simon and his adoptive father Joe become part of Kerewin’s life as she tries to figure out the mystery of Simon’s origin—nothing is known about his life before he was found washed up on a beach after a shipwreck. Interrupting her search for Simon’s past life, is the discovery that Joe has been physically abusing Simon. What will Kerewin do about the abuse? Will she cast aside her new friends just has she has alienated herself from her family? These answers and more are revealed in the wake of a terrible catastrophe that will test the mettle of Kerewin, Joe, and Simon.
Hulme draws from her own life as a New Zealander of Māori (the native peoples of the island) and European descent to craft the character of Kerewin. Using a mixture of English and Māori language Hulme is able to show the culture of the area where Kerewin is living. Joe is full Māori and Simon is an orphan of European descent being raised in this blended Māori/European environment. All of the main characters can speak (or write in Simon’s case) both languages although only Joe looks Māori on sight. Hulme’s depiction of cultural blending is believable and mostly well-executed. The book also includes a glossary of Māori words and phrases at the end for the reader’s reference. Notably absent in the book are discussions of the political climate of this mixed Māori/European area, moments of stereotyping or persecution, or much mention of ethnic clashing at all (save perhaps Kerewin’s mention that people are often surprised that she holds to some of the Māori culture since she looks white). So, while the culture blending is well-crafted, it is unevenly executed throughout the book.
Hulme does a good job of describing places and internal spaces throughout the novel. The places the characters go are beautifully and vividly depicted, and even though I haven’t been to New Zealand I had no problems picturing the settings. She also does a good job with the internal dialogue of the characters—even mute Simon, which is a challenge for a speaking person to imagine. The reader is mostly in Kerewin’s head but also spends time looking at the world from Simon and Joe’s points of view. Internal dialogue can be difficult to describe to someone else, let alone have it be a major narrative mode in a novel, but Hulme brings the internal spaces of the characters to life excellently.
The form of The Bone People differs from a typical novel and is more similar to a free verse poem where ideas can come in spurts, topics can change frequently, and singing can be easily incorporated. This style blends well with the internal dialogue of the characters (primarily Kerewin) and allows for a more mysterious climate for the plot of the story. This style can be vague at times, but that is necessary, I think, for a story where each of the main characters has an easier time in their own heads than out in the world. The first half of the story is told from Kerewin’s point of view and the second half is split into the points of view of the three main characters, so the reader has a chance to get in everyone’s heads.
What did not Work:
Although the style form of the novel is interesting, the story is told unevenly. The first half is more factual and linear with Simon coming to Kerewin’s tower and the reader watching how Kerewin becomes friends with Simon and Joe. The events happen in order and, while there are some times when the story become mysterious or unexpected things happen, the story is not difficult to believe or follow. In stark contrast, the second half of the novel becomes more mystical and scattered. An aspect of magical realism comes in where Māori spirituality is explored in the lives of two of the characters. While this Māori element is not exactly out of place, it does come out of nowhere and gives the story an uneven feeling like it has been knocked off kilter. This continues on until the epilogue, which in my opinion was not necessary to include because it tries to give a glimpse into the near future but doesn’t actually provide any resolution.
While Hulme does make it easy to get into Kerewin’s world in the novel and provides a portal into Kerewin’s inner life, she is not ultimately a relatable character. The reader is never given an answer to why Kerewin has intentionally severed all ties with her family so the reader can never understand her well enough to feel empathy for her. Combined with Kerewin’s plot line in the second half of the novel, the reader feels increasingly detached from her and unsure of her decisions. Simon is shrouded in mystery for the other characters as well as the reader who doesn’t know why Simon cannot speak and finds no answer or comfort in the part of the novel told from his point of view. The looks into Simon’s inner dialogue offer little useful information and many useless facts about him. Joe, who is easily the most unrelatable character in the novel, does not become any easier to like as the story progresses. However, Kerewin seems to have more sympathy for Joe as the story goes on—another reason why the characters are difficult to have empathy for.
Unresolved Simon Mystery
It may be a bit of a spoiler to tell you that while you do find out more about Simon in the course of the novel, Hulme seems to give up on interesting questions about who he is, where he came from, and why he is mute. In my opinion, Simon is the most interesting character in the novel, but his story keeps going off on tangents that are never resolved. Perhaps if Hulme had not modeled the primary character, Kerewin, after herself, she would have been more interested in fleshing out the other characters.
Depictions of Violence
I mentioned in my summary that there was child abuse in the novel, and these depictions of violence are not for the faint of heart. Knowing more about the characters’ internal lives does not soften the blow (perhaps a poor choice of words) of the intense scenes of violence perpetrated on a child. While all of the scenes do serve important purposes in the storyline, they are graphic and difficult to read. The violence, although punished, is also another unresolved Simon plot line in the end.
The Bone People focuses on three characters in turmoil alongside brutal violence with a beautifully depicted Māori New Zealand backdrop. Fraught with uneven storytelling and difficult characters, this book is certainly one to read at your own risk, but if it sounds up your ally it probably is.