‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme ***

Keri Hulme’s only novel, The Bone People, was the winner of the 1985 Booker McConnell Prize.  I have wanted to get my hands on a copy of the book for years, but for one reason or another, have not.  I think I put it off a little as I haven’t had a great deal of luck with enjoying many of the Booker Prize winners which I have read to date.  However, I was still very excited to get to this one, and to be able to read it as part of an online book club which I run.

460635Some of the reviews which I chose to read before immersing myself into the novel piqued my interest further.  The New York Times Book Review comments that the novel, which is ‘set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, [is] bound in Maori myth and entwined with Christian symbols…  [Hulme] casts her magic on three fiercely unique characters, but reminds us that we, like them, are “nothing more than people”, and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection.’  The Sunday Times agrees, writing: ‘Seizing on material that might seem outlandish, she transforms it into a fable that’s as persuasive as it’s haunting.  In this novel, New Zealand’s people, its heritage and landscape are conjured up with uncanny poetry and perceptiveness.’

In her short preface to the volume, Hulme writes that the novel ‘began life as a short story called “Simon Peter’s Shell”‘.  She goes on to recount the ‘oddities’ which resound in her novel, with regard to both its editing process and her original choices of vocabulary: ‘… I think the shape of words brings a response from the reader – a tiny, subconscious, unacknowledged but definite response.’  I love it when authors employ wordplay, and particularly enjoyed the way in which Hulme evoked the landscape around her characters.  Her descriptions vividly captured the natural world; for instance, ‘Intermittent wheeping flutes from oystercatchers’, and ‘the gathering boil of the surf below.’

The Bone People begins in a tower by the New Zealand sea, which is inhabited by a part-Maori, part-European woman named Kerewin Holmes.  She is ‘an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family.’ Hulme writes of Kerewin’s quest to build herself the tower in which she lives: ‘All through the summer sun she laboured, alone with the paid, bemused, professional help.  The dust obscured and flayed, thirst parched, and tempers frayed, but the Tower grew.  A concrete skeleton, wooden ribs and girdle, skin of stone, grey and slateblue and heavy honey-coloured.  Until late one February it stood, gaunt and strange and embattled, built on an almost island in the shallows of an inlet, tall in Taiaroa.’

Kerewin is ‘self-fulfilling’, and invites nobody to visit her, ‘for what would they know of the secrets that crept and chilled and chuckled in the marrow of her bones?’  Although keeping herself to herself, and living a relatively isolated life, at the beginning of the novel she is ‘disrupted by a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession.’  Against her will, she ‘succumbs to his feral charm’, along with that of Joe, his Maori foster father.  The novel which Hulme has created, with an ‘unorthodox trinity’ of characters, is described as ‘at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet.’

When Kerewin first meets Simon, who has broken into her tower, she thinks him ‘Nasty.  Gnomish.’  She goes on to describe him in the following, almost disparaging, manner: ‘There isn’t much above a yard of it standing there, a foot out of range of her furthermost reach.  Small and thin, with an extraordinary face, highboned and hollowcheeked, fleet and pointed chin, and a sharp sharp nose.  Nothing else is visible under an obscuration of silverblond hair, except the mouth, and it’s set in an uncommonly stubborn line.’  The interactions of the two were interesting, as Simon is mute, and alternative methods of communication have to be relied upon.

From the first, I found Hulme’s prose beguiling.  In her deliberately ambiguous prologue, she writes: ‘They were nothing more than people, by themselves.  Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves.  But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.’  There is a mysterious quality to the book, and this weaves itself through the novel.

Hulme’s writing, and the way she goes about it, is experimental, but not in a way which makes it inaccessible. An omniscient narrative form runs alongside Kerewin’s thoughts, which come across in a stream-of-consciousness style.  This works well on the whole, but it does tend to jump around somewhat, and is a little difficult to get used to at first.  Style-wise, I do not actually believe that I’ve read anything at all similar to The Bone People, and I am a fan of experimental writing.

I did not warm to any of the protagonists.  I do not feel that doing so was at all the point of the novel, however.  Hulme seems to set out to demonstrate how flawed the human race is, and how we can be led so easily by others.  She shows, in a series of highly violent, traumatic, and difficult to read scenes, just how cruel we can be, and how irredeemably we can hurt others.

The Bone People is a novel which feels very contemporary.  I loved the way in which Hulme has used Maori terms throughout; of course, this is fitting to the setting of the story and its characters.  A glossary at the back of the novel gives English translations, although many are self-explanatory given the context in which they are used.  So much attention has been paid to each of the senses throughout the novel, and this added depth to Hulme’s descriptions and depictions.  There is a real shape and movement to Hulme’s prose, and I found the approach which she took in The Bone People a fascinating and admirable one.

Whilst I admired Hulme’s writing style, and found her prose rich and textured, I cannot sadly say that this is a novel which I enjoyed reading.  This is particularly true when the relentless violence begins to saturate everything else.  The Bone People feels like an important book, particularly from a cultural standpoint, but I found it difficult to read on the whole.  Overall, I found the novel unusual, harrowing, strange, and incredibly intense.

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Books Set in New Zealand

Reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful The Colour has made me realise quite how few books I have read which are set in New Zealand.  This is clearly an oversight on my part; New Zealand has always been very high on my travel list, and I am fascinated by the culture there.  Katherine Mansfield, born in Wellington, is one of my favourite all-time authors, and I also very much enjoy the work of Janet Frame, Lloyd Jones, and Eleanor Catton.  I clearly need more works set in New Zealand on my to-read pile, and thus have made a list of tomes which I am very much looking forward to picking up in the next year or so.

5271891. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge (I’m hoping to read this for the 1944 Club in October)
A haunting love story set in the Channel Islands and New Zealand in the 19th century.  William, whose hypnotic, masculine presence made two women adore him… of Marianne, moody, passionate, brilliant, by whom William was both fascinated and repelled… of Marguerite, Marianne’s beautiful sister whom William wanted with all his heart.  They had both loved him for years. Now they were waiting for him to return from his journeys and claim his bride.


2. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.


3. The Bone People by Keri Hulme 460635
In a tower on the New Zealand sea lives Kerewin Holmes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor—a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon’s feral charm, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality. Out of this unorthodox trinity Keri Hulme has created what is at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge. Winner of both a Booker Prize and Pegasus Prize for Literature, The Bone People is a work of unfettered wordplay and mesmerizing emotional complexity.


4. An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography by Janet Frame
This autobiography traces Janet Frame’s childhood in a poor but intellectually intense family, life as a student, years of incarceration in mental hospitals and eventual entry into the saving world of writers.


237252755. The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns
Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.  Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.


6. The Piano by Jane Campion
In the award-winning film The Piano, writer/director Jane Campion created a story so original and powerful it fascinated millions of moviegoers. This novel stands independent of the film, exploring the mysteries of Ada’s muteness, the secret of her daughter’s conception, the reason for her strange marriage and the past lives of Baines and Stewart.


7. A Respectable Girl by Fleur Beale 3768628
It is 1859 in the raw township of New Plymouth where Hannah Carstairs walks between two worlds. She finds that both her worlds are changing. First there are the disturbing hints about her dead mother’s past. Then, the tensions between the Maori tribes and the settlers boil over into war.


8. A Land of Two Halves by Joe Bennett
After 10 years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett asked himself what on earth he was doing there. Other than his dogs, what was it about these two small islands on the edge of the world that had kept him—an otherwise restless traveller—for really much longer than they seemed to deserve? Bennett thought he’d better pack his bag and find out. Hitching around both the intriguingly named North and South Islands, with an eye for oddity and a taste for conversation, Bennett began to remind himself of the reasons New Zealand is quietly seducing the rest of the world.


Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite works set in, or about, New Zealand?

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