Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Bone People by Keri Hulme (1984)

Keri Hulme (born 1947) is a writer from New Zealand and The Bone People is thus far her only novel; she has also written poetry and short stories. Her ancestors were native New Zealanders as well as Europeans.

In 1985 Hulme won the Booker Prize for The Bone People. This book is a mystical fable that weaves the history and language of the Maoris and the grim realities of contemporary life (alcoholism, poverty, child abuse) with the story of three individuals who become wrapped up in each other's lives.

The story begins with Kerewin Holmes, a reclusive intellectual and painter of mixed ancestry who lives in an isolated tower on the New Zealand coast. She spends her days fishing and drinking and is frustrated by her inability to paint. One day she finds a little boy, Simon, has broken into her home. She soon discovers he is mute, but very clever and has a reputation for being a thief and a trouble-maker. She keeps him at her house until his father, Joe, comes to pick him up.

Joe, a Maori, explains how he came to be blond Simon's father: Simon was found washed up on a local beach after a terrible storm and was the only survivor of the boat he was on. He was severely traumatized, and since he has never spoken, his origins were a complete mystery. Joe and his wife volunteerd to raise the boy as their own but soon thereafter, she and their infant son died, leaving Joe and Simon on their own.

Kerewin, Joe and Simon soon become friends and something of a family but at the same time, Kerewin begins to see that Simon is more than a handful for Joe, and while the father and son love each other devotedly, Joe simply cannot cope and is physically violent with Simon.

Kerewin herself (I kept thinking that she represented the author - look at the similarity of their names, profession and ancestry) has her own issues; she is estranged from her family and avoids all intimacy, and is struggling with her art.

Joe and Kerewin both try to make things work for Simon but the story takes a dramatic turn which results in severe injuries for Simon, prison for Joe and a life threatening illness for Kerewin - and they are all separated from one another, and forced to find their own way back.

This novel was a bit difficult to get into at the beginning due to author's very unique style of writing and my unfamiliarity with life in New Zealand but once I began to know and care about the three main characters, it was very difficult to put down. It was a painful book to read at times - I found it especially sad when it became clear that Joe was beating Simon, and it was so difficult to reconcile the caring father who hugged and kissed his son with the vicious drunk that violently abused him. I could understand why Kerewin tried to help them in the way she did, and also why it did not work in the end.

This book is also a fascinating introduction to New Zealand's culture and society. I would highly recommend it for "Books Around the World".

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (2010)

I love looking at the "new arrivals" shelf in our library - sometimes I find a brand-new book by an author I never heard of and it intrigues me and I take it home and am swept away by a new story. This book was one of those.

I admit I hadn't hear of author Joshua Ferris before. His first novel was "Then We Came to the End", which won several awards. This is his second novel and I was immediately caught up by the premise: Tim is a partner at a prestigious law firm in Manhattan, with a lovely home in the suburbs, a wife who sells real estate and an overweight teenage daughter. Inexplicably, he suffers from a never before described disease that has incredible and far-reaching consequences for his life and everyone around him, and no one can determine if it is a physical illness or a mental disorder. Namely, he suffers from bouts of uncontrollable walking.

Are you intrigued? I was. I couldn't put the book down! The storyline shifts back and forth between different periods in his life when he suffers from the walking on a regular basis as well as the periods of remission in between, and little by little we learn what the disease really entails, how he manages it and what effects it has on him, his career, his wife and daughter and his relationships with them. Sometimes the story reminded me a bit of "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Nieffinger; towards the end of the book it often made me think of "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.

The book deals with the idea of "til death do us part" in a marriage: to what lengths should a partner go to support the other partner with a debilitating illness? Should the sick partner stop accepting help and support from the other, and set them free to live a "better" life? Or is this also a kind of betrayal? It also adresses the question of a man's identity and how it can be so wrapped up in his career that nothing seems to be left when it is taken away from him.

Finally, the utter helplessness of the medical community when faced with something so unexplainable...the biggest question that I had in my mind all through the book was why didn't they consider amputating his legs? If that sounds barbaric, read the book and tell me if that doesn't occur to you as well, especially towards the end. Or does it seem that he finally finds some kind of peace with his existence? I couldn't decide.