Keri Hulme, The Bone People

This is another ‘pre-written’ post but I only finished the book last week so it’s still practically a new post.

Two things made me pick up the book. The first was an impulse to do with the title; it seemed strange, enigmatic and compelling somehow – was it science fiction or fantasy or myth? All three are genres which I often enjoy and as I haven’t been enthralled by a novel in a while I thought to give it a go. The second reason, the main reason I started reading the book, was the fact that it won the Booker Prize in 1985. Now if that makes me sound like a literary snob then so be it. However, I conjectured that a book which had won this prestigious prize must be quite good – even if ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are always in the eye of the beholder or, in this case, reader. Having researched the novel after reading it, it does seem as if this novel has divided critics and the average reader alike. Some say it is fantastic, others that it is weird, too self-consciously mystical and that the end is too simplistic and ‘convenient’. Be that as it may, The Bone People was exactly my kind of book. Part poetry, part prose and often the two were practically indistinguishable. Even if I did find some passages rather too forced and there were many obvious cliches, the book was, on the whole, a lovely venture into something quite different.

Kerewin Holmes, Joe Gillayley and Simon are three people who are thrown together by chance. Simon washed up on a beach in South New Zealand after the ship he was on was wrecked on a reef. He was taken in by Joe and his wife, Hana, who dies shortly after. Simon proves to be a difficult child, mute but not deaf, wilful, stubborn and independent. Joe often finds it hard to cope and, despite his obvious love for the child, sees violence as the only way of educating Simon. Some of those passages make very difficult reading as the omniscient narrator includes both Simon’s and Joe’s thoughts during the confrontations, during the beatings and during the scenes where both characters display the obvious love they have for each other. The novel begins when Simon first meets Kerewin. Despite the fact that the boy is attempting to break into her house, Kerewin takes care of him and nurses the wound in his foot – symbolic, perhaps, of the way the boy is shackled, hindered by something. This moment of tenderness leads to a deep friendship between the three main characters, a friendship marred by the revelation of Joe’s method of punishment. Unlike the State, who perceives only the beating not the love, Kerewin perceives Joe’s anguish at his anger and attempts to help the two men. She helps Joe take care of Simon, reaching out to the child patiently and trying to understand the motivation behind some apparently erratic actions. Simon’s past remains a mystery to both Kerewin and Joe, even though they finally realise that his family is Irish and that he understands some French.

The crisis point is reached when Kerewin’s patience snaps. Simon breaks her guitar which is the only way Kerewin expresses emotions. After she bitterly tells him to get out, the boy proceeds to smash every shop window along a street in town. Joe’s subsequent beating, for once apparently condoned by Kerewin, leads to Simon’s hospitalisation with potentially life-threatening wounds. During the beating, Simon stabs Joe with a shard of glass, injuring Joe in his first attempt to fight back. In the aftermath of the crisis, Joe is sent to prison for beating a child, Simon remains in hospital for months and Kerewin disappears. Then follows the part of the novel most criticised by the readers – the section in which all three characters go through some sort of spiritual journey of discovery and healing.

The end of the novel is obviously carefully constructed, perhaps too carefully to be fully plausible, and the mystery of Simon’s heritage is implied and hinted at but never fully explained. I did find the end slightly disappointing because it appears rushed. The rest of the novel builds up tension and then the denouement takes place within a couple of pages. However, I suppose, that by the end of the 600-odd pages of the novel an end had to be reached sooner rather than later. I think I will reread it some day but I also think that it is a novel which needs to ‘sit’ with the reader for a while before re-reading it. I don’t know the other novels in the running for the Booker Prize but I would compare the novel to Mantel’s Wolf Hall which (except for Hulme’s poetry interpolations) is written in a similar style. The Bone People did make me want to read other Booker Prize winners, though, to which end I have now borrowed Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and Beryl Bainbridge’s The Dressmaker (only a nominee but still) from the local library. Watch this space!


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