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.


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