The Bone People (Keri Hulme 1984)


The Bone People is the first novel of Keri Hulme, a New Zealand author whose parents were of Scottish, English and Māori descent. The latter in particular is important, since it informs a great deal of her novel, The Bone People. Despite the book winning the 1985 Booker Prize I had never heard of it until I heard somewhere that the protagonist was asexual, and I later learned that the author herself was asexual. Out of interest, I picked it up. The plot summary sounds simple enough. Kerewin Holmes, the protagonist, is a reclusive artist after the mute precocious child Simon P. Gillayley turns up at her home without warning. Despite her attempts otherwise she and the child bond and she, the child and Simon’s adoptive father Joe Gillayley come to form a close bond that transcends definition. However all is not perfect as it appears on the surface, as Joe is unable to cope with Simon’s unruly behaviour and secretly beats the child.

Despite the simplicity, the prose is very sophisticated. Amongst the most notable traits are a complex train of though prose style that is mostly told in third person, mostly through the eyes of Kerewin but increasingly through Joe’s and eventually Simon’s point of view as the story progresses. The thing that stands out is the format in which it potrays the characters thoughts, which are formatted distinctly from the rest of the prose text. The thoughts are indented so that they stand out. This works to keep them separate from the main text in a unique and stylish fashion, without having to resort to a more conventional technique such as italics. I’ll admit I was a bit confused by the style at first but once I got used to it I found it easy to follow.

However there was one aspect of the prose which I wasn’t too keen on, in part due to pragmatic reasons. As a writer I applaud Keri Hulme for using elements of the Māori language amongst the dialogue, especially since it fits with the novel’s connections to the Māori and creates sense of the immersion. However there is the slight problem that I cannot understand a word of the Māori language. Some phrases were translated in the glossary at the back, however I found it to be far from complete and I was left to fend for myself with regards to the meaning of certain basic words and phrases. Not a huge issue by any means, and I like how the words make the work sound intelligent. I just wish I could understand what they meant.

The plot itself keeps things simple but not without some problems of its own. I had some issues about whether or not Kerewin was too accepting of Joe’s abuse towards Simon and whether or not she should have forgiven Joe at the end. Joe in particular was a divisive character in himself, in part because of the child abuse. I found myself feeling sorry for him after he lost custody of Simon and he goes wandering into the wilderness but at the same time I also felt like he got exactly what he deserved. Yet the reconciliation scene at the end gave me mixed feelings, since I wondered to myself whether Joe deserved to have a part in the scene. Aside from this, I also found myself enjoying the various twists the novels thrown at me. Most enjoyable were those relating to Simon’s origins, and reveals about his identity. These were things I liked about the novel.The plotline of Kerewin and her cancer diagnosis came a bit out of nowhere however and I felt like it was thrown in just to make things harder for Kerewin in time for the book’s climax. Yet overall I still enjoyed the novel in terms of plot.

Overall the novel came across as very powerful and sophisticated, especially when it started to weave the characters’ personal dramas together with Māori mythology. The novel brings all the plot threads together in a fantastic fashion and while the prose isn’t always easy to follow due to its train of thought style and use of Māori language, it remains cohesive. I was a bit disappointed that the novel didn’t examine Kerewin’s asexuality as much as I would have hoped as I hoped the novel would discuss the issue in detail when compared to other instances of Asexuality in fiction such as Sherlock Holmes. In the end though, the themes diverted away from the characters’ sexuality and focused more and things such as family and isolation. At the same time I see it fitting that the book doesn’t make a big deal of Kerewin’s sexuality, when sexuality isn’t a big deal in her life in general. A great novel overall and one I would recommend to anyone who is willing to take the plunge and one that will truly make you question things.

SCORE: 4/5



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