To kick-off my themed posts over the next few weeks: I give you books set in New Zealand and Australia, many by Kiwi and Aussie authors. If you’re following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know why. Here, though, I’ll just say I’ve long been wanting to reread the books I’ll be reviewing these next 2 months, and I finally have a reason strong enough to get me started.
So, first: Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize winning The Bone People (1983). I remember being wowed when I first read this just after Penguin published the paperback version (1986). The story is rough, with violence, anger, isolation, alcoholism nearly overwhelming the balms of nature, art (both musical and visual), friendship, family, love. The plot is complex, revealed through the thoughts and impressions of the three main characters:
Kerewin, estranged from her family, lives alone in a tower on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, struggling to regain her artistic vision. She comes home one day to find young Simon, mute and often wildly out of control, inside her tower. Like Androcles, she removes a thorn from the child’s foot and becomes forever his savior. When his foster father, Joe, comes for him, Kerewin gets a glimpse of the loving yet violent relationship between them. They gradually win her over, gradually come to see her as their possible redemption. The back stories are complex, involving shipwreck and sudden loss of loved ones, leaving three broken people looking for what will heal them.
Joe identifies as Maori, Simon is clearly European (Pakeha), and Kerewin is a mix of the two — easing the leap to understanding the book as a metaphor for the long history of indigenous people versus European colonists. E nga iwi o nga iwi, Simon remembers Joe saying: Oh, the bones of the people (iwi = “bones”, but also “people”, i.e., ancestors, so this saying holds the key to the book’s title). Simon is convinced that the three of them belong together, are broken without each other, will die if not reunited. Does the same hold true for New Zealand? for other countries where Pakeha have outnumbered and pushed aside iwi?
Hulme’s writing isn’t easy, requiring patience and tolerance of unusual language and structure. A glossary of Maori words and phrases, which appears at the end, is helpful, but Hulme makes no other concessions to the reader. On this second reading, I found myself struggling once again to keep track of whose thoughts and impressions were being voiced, this time with a bit less patience for Hulme’s style. (Several publishers rejected Hulme’s manuscript, one allegedly noting, “Undoubtedly Miss Hulme can write but unfortunately we don’t understand what she is writing about.”*)
I also frequently lost patience with Kerewin, Hulme’s Renaissance Woman — Kere quotes from obscure (all real) ancient and modern texts, plays all styles of guitar (flamenco, folk, classical, jazz, you-name-it), sculpts and draws and paints, knows edible plants and sea creatures, is a pretty good Aikido fighter, reads the dictionary, and designed and built her tower. Too good to be true, I kept thinking, and then I had to remind myself: it’s FICTION, for goodness sake. My job as the reader is to figure out why Hulme gave Kerewin so many powers, while keeping her alone and frustrated, reluctant to let Simon and Joe into her life. What use are superpowers if they don’t make you happy?
This is a difficult read, but, in the end, worth the effort of making sense of someone else’s story. Hulme’s resolution suggests the importance of doing the hard work towards understanding the “other” and building unity. It’s a hopeful message, despite this novel’s dark, sad heart. Keep that in mind, if you pick this up.
*See footnote 4 on the novel’s Wikipedia page.