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".

No comments: