I don’t know if I knew what to expect when I decided to read The Bone People. I knew it had won the Booker Prize, which isn’t always a great indicator if I’m going to enjoy a book or not, and that it was an Own Voices book by a New Zealand author. Keri Hulme spent over a decade crafting a story of people of Maori heritage in the part of the country she still lives in, and she was steadfast in writing the novel in the way that made sense to her – notoriously refusing to let any publishing house edit the work and finally publishing by Spiral, a small feminist collective press in New Zealand, and eventually by the Louisiana State University Press in the States.
The Bone People is an ambitious work that uses the clash between Maori and European cultures to paint the background of its world and the inner lives of its mixed heritage characters. The book focuses on the complicated relationships that develop among its three protagonists: Kerewin, a painter, who leads a hermetic, solitary life, convinced that art is sufficient to sustain her and that relationships with anyone can only lead to pain; Simon, a mute 6 year old, who has suffered a terrible wound in the past, and his adoptive father, Joe, a laborer with a nasty temper.
In its attempts to mythicize the lives of its three peculiar heroes, The Bone People never quite lives up to the introduction. Hulme’s storytelling is vivid, backed up by some poetic and evocative descriptions of the New Zealand coastline and Maori myth and legend, which allows her to explore ideas about ownership, stewardship and cultural survival that add real heft to the book. The book is also, at its core, an all-too realistic story of abuse and trauma. The craftmanship Hulme shows in the interior monologues, and even in the seemingly disjointed narratives is very obviously building to something. Then we reach the end of the first section and the reader is left adrift.
The Bone People won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature and with some judicious pruning, the book might well have been the unmistakably powerful visionary fable Hulme was after and that the judges clearly saw, but in some ways escapes me. As it is, and reading it a generation later when I cannot reconcile the extreme violence against a child with the actions of the middle of the book, it is still a very good book about love, redemption, and renewal. But it is unevenly written and considerably overlong.