The Bone People, Keri Hulme, Penguin Books, 1985, 545 pp
This amazing novel has been described by readers as difficult, unusual, strange, impossible to read, all time favorite, impressive, beautiful. It won the Booker Prize in 1985 and was reprinted as part of the Penguin Ink Series in 2010. It is a book readers either love or hate and it won't go away.
The three main characters, a woman, a man, and a child, are each in their own ways ruined by loss. Kerewin Holmes, an artist who can no longer paint, lives in a tower she built on the New Zealand Sea. Estranged from her part Maori, part European family, she drinks to avoid her despair. Despite her alienation and self-destructive habits, I found her sympathetic and intriguing.
Kerewin's hermetic existence is invaded by a mute and troubled child, Simon, who capriciously worms his way into her heart. I think she sees herself in him. Though he can't speak, he is intelligent, wily, desperate for affection, untrustworthy and out of control.
Along comes Joe, Simon's foster father. He is another Maori/European mix and surrounded by the Maori side of his extended family. Having lost a beloved wife and child, he has a charged and complicated relationship with Simon. His personal faults drive him to physically abuse the boy.
The story about these three is a sometimes unwieldy mix of love story, cultural confusion, and mystery. Unbelievable alcoholic consumption and emotional devastation combine with achingly beautiful and poetic description to create an exploration of New Zealand life that is nothing like any novel I have read lately.
Reading about how these characters act out their troubles and their hopes, I became involved with them as deeply as the people I grapple with in my own life. Despite some very grim scenes involving cruelty and abuse, I found myself hoping their humanity could overcome their demons.
The very factors that make The Bone People difficult to read (the poetic and reflective writing, the horrors, and the tumbling, twisted form of the plot) are what make it amazing and beautiful. There are plenty of novels that celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. Keri Hulme balances the hope of that resilience with the perils. In a culture where ancient values have been almost obliterated by Western views, the hardships of life put these characters to ever more difficult tests.
The author shows all of this with compassion, even humor, and made me think about the vast amounts of wisdom mankind has lost in our race for dominion over each other and the world. I feel honored to have read The Bone People.
(The Bone People is currently available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)