The Bone People
The Bone People (originally published in 1984) is a beautiful, complex, and astounding novel of healing, loss, and love. Keri Hulme utilises an unusual style; switching between viewpoints, first and third person, and employing a magnificent virtuosity with her plays on words. Although this occasionally makes for difficult reading, Hulme’s writing is powerful and its fluidity really allows the reader to connect with the characters’ personalities and thought processes.
The characters themselves are complex and portrayed with skill. Kerewin, a 30-something recluse has recently won the lottery and broken with her family irreparably. With her money, she has built a medieval tower that was meant to be a “glimmering retreat”, but has become her “prison”. Disillusioned, she spends her days combing the beaches, drinking, and cursing her frustrated artistic skill. Yet this is shattered the day she returns home to find Simon stuck in her window, “like a weird saint … haloed in hair, shrouded in dying sunlight.” Simon, a traumatised, mute six-year-old, befriends Kerewin against her will, bringing with him his foster father, Joe. Joe is a charming Māori widower who is haunted by the death of his wife and child. Left with only “Himi”, as he calls Simon, he loves the child with a fierce tenderness that transcends the pages of the novel. Yet, as the novel proceeds we realise, along with Kerewin, that Joe is also horrifically abusive towards his young son. This proceeds to one of the most morally complex plots I have come across in contemporary literature. Part of this stems from Hulme’s refusal to fully blame Joe for the abuse. Instead, it is portrayed as being deeply anchored in his grief and cultural alienation; almost as though it is something outside of him, arising from depths of pain that cannot be controlled. Furthermore, the bond between Joe and Himi creates the strong impression that they are better off together, despite the abuse. Thus, when the novel reaches its horrific climax, the reader, along with Kerewin, finds themselves in a complex place of moral complicity. Yet, such is Hulme’s skill in depicting human relationships that the reunion of Kerewin, Joe and Himi is still craved for. In fact, the unity of the three is the crux of the book; as the prologue says: “together, all together, they are the instruments of change.”
What I found particularly striking was Hulme’s rich use of symbolism to draw together a narrative that reflects on New Zealand as a postcolonial, multicultural nation. The characters exist as exiles: Kerewin from her family, Joe from his dead wife and child, and Simon from a traumatic past he only glimpses in dreams. All three of them, the half-caste woman, the Māori man, and the Pākehā/European child, thus carry with them pasts tainted with violence, which colours the emergence of their heterodox family. The emergence of this family can be seen as symbolic of New Zealand as a nation. None of these characters fits within defined racial categories, but rather exists as a blend of Pākehā, Māori, and European elements. However, this cultural blending is not easy; Kerewin and Joe both frequently express discomfort at reconciling Māori and European cultures. Hulme also draws from a fountain of both Māori and European myths, embroiling the story with the idea of redemption and salvation. Christian myth is evident in Simon, portrayed as both saint and devil, with his eventual rebirth representing salvation. Yet the novel is also tightly bound by Māori myths: both Kerewin and Joe have profound experiences with Māori spirituality, which heal and reconcile them to themselves and the world around them. This ties into the novel’s emphasis on the past in order to reconcile and heal. This is most ostensibly represented in the evasive search for Simon’s trauma, represented only in the clue of a ship – an enticing symbol of European voyages, exile, and the distance between the intertwining cultures. Yet it is also essential throughout, as Kerewin and Joe examine personal and cultural pasts to anchor their identities and those of their people. Thus, the emergence of the “family” is a culmination of myth and melding of fractured cultural and personal pasts. The combination of brutality and love is portrayed as something that must be worked through, both on cultural and individual levels. This results in a unity that is at once beautiful and fractured, yet one that emerges as an image of strength and transformation; both for the characters in themselves, but also as symbols of the cultural meld of New Zealand.
This symbolism risks becoming naff, but Hulme manages to pull it off so that the novel takes on the beauty of a religious parable. My only criticism is that the final reconciliation is done in such a way that it feels a little forced. The sudden restoration of the characters from the very depths of alienation and despair just seems too convenient. However, that The Bone People does have a happy ending is essential to its message and tone. So long as there is salvation, The Bone People can draw on themes of healing, love, and reconcilement, which it does with astounding beauty. Without this ending, we would be left with a book of pure despair and helplessness, which, for all its merits, I feel would lose its sense of quasi-religious grace and profundity.
I was deeply moved by the tenderness and sympathy with which Hulme depicted her characters and New Zealand society. The Bone People really made me re-examine the history and culture of this nation. It is also a novel which I believe captures the complexity of human relations and the ambiguity of morality. As a literary work, it is harsh, brutal and full of sadness and horror. Yet it is also full of hope, redemption and love. It is a masterpiece.
Rachael Imlay is a first-year English student at Victoria University of Wellington. Read more reviews by young readers at www.hookedonbooks.org.nz.