Mar 24 2009 5:24pm

Maori Fantasy: Keri Hulme’s The Bone People

Keri Hulme has, according to the little piece about the author, “Maori, Scottish and English ancestry” and has always lived in New Zealand. The Bone People is a book rooted in the physical locations of rural littoral New Zealand and in the mythological and folk traditions of the Maori people. The very specificity of the places and details makes the magic, when you get to it, feel real and rooted and entirely believable. This is above everything a story about a colonised people getting their spirit back, and getting it back in a way that is itself uniquely theirs but does not exclude. In Hulme’s vision of cultural renewal, the New Zealanders of European (“Pakeha”) origin are included as also belonging now to the land. The book takes you slowly into the heart of it and it takes you spiralling out again. This is a story about three people, and in their three points of view, the part-Maori woman Kerewin who is an artist who is blocked, the Maori man Joseph who has wanted so much and failed at everything, and the mute child Simon, who is all European and who washed up on the shore from a wreck. Terrible things happen to them, and wonderful things, and things that are very hard to read about.

The Bone People is a wonderful book, and one it’s definitely a lot more fun to re-read than it was to read for the first time. There’s a lot in the book that’s very disturbing, and there’s one passage that in many re-reads I’ve never seen without tears coming between me and the words. It’s a story where half-way through the first time I almost felt I couldn’t go on, except that I had to, and yet knowing the well-earned ending it has, over time, become a comfort read for me. The present edition says it was the most successful book in New Zealand’s publishing history. It won the prestigious Booker Prize sometime in the mid-eighties, and the award did its job by attracting a lot of attention to the book, including mine. I first read a library copy (on a train to Skegness) and then I bought a new paperback, and then I read my paperback to death and I’ve recently replaced it with another paperback. I love it. I love the fish and the food and the magic, I love the people, I’ve read it so often that I can read the Maori phrases without looking at the translations at the back, and yet the only way I can get through the book is knowing that in the end there is redemption. I think Hulme knew that, because she put the end at the beginning, just as a little incomprehensible prologue, to let you know they come through.

I think this is a book most people would really enjoy. There’s the unusual perspective, the interesting culture, the deep-rooted magic, the wonderful end, but I have to say it isn’t an easy book.

Joseph Gillayley drinks and beats his foster-son, Simon. And yet he loves him, and Simon loves Joe, and Kerewin thinks at one point “What kind of love is it that has violence as a silent partner?” and that’s what the book goes into, in more detail than you might be able to take. It does not romanticise the situation or shy away from it. Terrible things happen to Simon, but the worst of them for him is that he loses his home. The hardest thing to read is not Simon being hurt but Joe hurting him. Getting into the point of view of a man beating a child, understanding where that comes from is a major writing achievement, and deeply upsetting.

At the beginning of the book, all three of the main characters are screwed up. The story is the process of them being healed, and in the process renewing their culture, but they are healed by going through annealing fire. Simon is mute and about eight years old, he doesn’t know where he comes from and thinks that he is bad, and that when people find that out about him they will hurt him. This has been the pattern of his life. Kerewin is artistically blocked and cut off from her family, from human connection and from love. Joe has lost two vocations and a family and he has a child who does misbehave, who does do wild things, who deliberately invites violence because he sees it as redemptive. Simon wants everything to be all right again and he wants that to happen after punishment, because that’s what he understands. He thinks he is the scapegoat. He doesn’t want to be hit but he wants to be loved, and being hit is part of that, and he will deliberately provoke it. Simon’s healing involves being very badly hurt, being taken away from his father, and then eventually coming to see value in himself and a way of going on that is not the way of violence. And Joe, who was beaten himself as a child and comes out of a pattern of this, goes through prison and then physical distress and then being trusted with something real and magical before he can start seeing the world differently. Kerewin tears down her tower (she has the best tower, but it’s the wrong thing) and almost dies before she can come to renewal, to be able to create again.

The magic works like stone soup. It gives them the confidence to begin again, to do what needs to be done, to rebuild, and then everyone comes to help and add their little bit. The book wouldn’t work without it. It’s there and real and alive, like everything else in the story.

I’m afraid I’ve made it sound cold, but it isn’t at all, it’s a very warm and welcoming book. It’s also very readable, with beautiful use of language and point of view. The place and the people feel real enough to bite, which is why you can come to care about them so much.

Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
1. ceitfianna
I read the Bone People for the first time when I was living and working in New Zealand and its one of those books that I constantly recommend. After reading your review, I think I'm going to find it for a reread since I'm sure I'll find more in it.

Witi Ihimaera's novels also have a lot of the same atmosphere of reality mixed with magic though his books are even more rooted in the Maori traditions especially The Matriarch which has a large sense of history.
Soon Lee
2. SoonLee
Re:Witi Ihimaera

Also "The Whale Rider" which has been adapted into a movie.
Grant Stone
3. grant_stone
If you're looking for more New Zealand fiction, I heartily recommend James George and Nigel Cox.

You may also want to check out Philippa Ballantine's Weather Child, a podcast novel set in a universe where New Zealand Magic is much more than the slogan of a poster on Murray Hewitt's wall.
4. nutmeag
I second Witi Ihimaera (I had a prof who was taught by him) and also recommend Patricia Grace's Potiki. I love postcolonial lit from the islands (did a huge paper on it once), partly for its fantastic and magical nature, but mostly because island authors know how to help their characters grow.

Thanks so much for reviewing this. I love it when the word on these books can get out. Great job!
5. nutmeag
Oops, scratch the part about having a prof taught by Ihimaera . . . that was Vilsoni Hereniko. My bad.
Soon Lee
6. SoonLee
Re: NZ fiction.
"The Vintner's Luck" by Elizabeth Knox has received numerous glowing reviews (it's in my to-read list). Like "The Bone People", it's fantasy that's shelved in the mainstream fiction section.
Justin Adair
7. Hobbyns
I can't believe that I've never heard of this book. In primary school Down Under I had a teacher who was Maori (taught us lads a Maori war dance and everything) and she claimed she was descended from a tribal leader.

Regardless, I've been fascinated with Maori culture ever since. Can't wait to look this up and give it a read.
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
8. ceitfianna
Just chiming in again with Nigel Cox is wonderful. Tarzan Presley was a strange and complicated mix of very New Zealand and American and how they collide. I remember I read it on my plane ride home after my second year in New Zealand.

Also I'm so glad to have more authors to go looking for because I miss New Zealand every day, its a country that gets under your skin in a fantastic way.
Theresa DeLucci
9. theresa_delucci
I loved The Bone People. I always remember Kerewin's tower. I've got a lot of interest in Maori culture and this and Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors were the first novels I read about the community.

Very unexpected to see this book on Tor.com. But thinking about it, it is a lovely fit. And a great novel is a great novel. Thanks for exposing this book to more readers!
Aquila G
10. Aquila1nz
While we're all recommending NZ books Jo really should read (if she hasn't already), can I put in "Under the Mountain" by Maurice Gee.
It's a kids book, except it's by Gee, so it isn't only, and it's the best NZ science fiction I know.

Yes to all you said about Bone People which was a revelation when I first read it, and I must reread it again sometime soon.
11. selidor
Such a nice review of this book.
I reread it recently - being away from NZ and finding it in a little wood-paneled American library, with the afternoon sun coming in the window and making the Stars and Stripes in the corner glow; this little piece of West Coast ocean beach and pebbled shore and painful choices, it made me nearly cry. Every line describing the land, the place, is so accurate.

I third Witi Ihimaera. And Maurice Gee, whose 'In My Father's Den' has the disturbing social relationships pain of The Bone People, but for quite different reasons.
14. Bets Davies
Wow! I can't believe I've never heard of this book. For all the brutality involved, I am still sucked right into the review. I love fantasy that uses different cultures. I get a little sick of all the white people. And I'm White, so I am sometimes guilty of this myself.

The description reminds me a little of Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. It takes place in Toronto, but a very different Toronto it is.

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