5 Warning spoilers, trigger warnings and unpopular opinion time C.
K Stead is a fairly divisive figure in NZ literature and has been roundly rebuffed for his criticisms of both The Bone People and The LuminariesAfter reading The Bone People for myself I went searching for his much maligned letter to the London Review of books 1985 entitled Maoriness which can be found here amongst some perhaps unfortunately worded statements, I finally found a set of arguments about Hulme s novel that happen to dovetail almost exactly with my own reading of it The letter is in no way entirely disparaging of the book and neither am I but this final paragraph stood outI m glad The Bone People has been written and published But when I stand back from it and reflect there is, in addition to the sense of its power, a bitter aftertaste, something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric, which no amount of revision or editing could have eliminated I suspect it has its location in the central subject matter, and that this is something it shares with Benjamin Britten s opera Peter Grimes, a work which also presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it In principle, such charity is admirable In fact, the line between charity and imaginative complicity is very fine indeed A bitter after taste is precisely what I am left with here despite the books obvious power and lingering hold over me Some of this writing is the best I have encountered in NZ literature, the sense of place, particularly for the South Island is unparalleled and Hulme takes a delight in word play and poetry that initially made me think this was going to be a 5 star read Also as Stead states Simon is a major fictional character, the most complete, convincing and fascinating of the three, and all the remarkable in that his personality has to be conveyed to us without spoken language I would go further and say that Kerewin is just as fascinating A singular personality the so because she is so obviously a fantastical version of Keri Hulme herself This makes things all the problematic for me because despite the love she demonstrated for this Goblin, sun child as she calls Simon Himi she fails him over and over again Lets take a look at how dated and tone deaf some of the this central subject matter is I will let Joe and Kerewin do the talking here view spoilerAt the moment he d rather cut his throat than hurt his son, but he knows from broken past resolutions, that come the morning if the child is sulky or rude or baulks at doing what he is told, he ll welt him with a cold and righteous intentJoewell what the hell do I do now o I know what I am supposed to do, ring up child welfare and report the bloody mess he is in Excuse me, i know a small child who s getting bashed it looks like he been bashed with a whip but i hope to god not I had suspicions when he was here with his face battered But he never said it was Joe, and Joe didn t admit it was himI ve seen him slappedHell everyone slaps kidsKerewin, internal monologue for the first time it comes to her that she is aiding and abetting the concealment of a criminal offenceand yet at no stage does she show any personal regret at not doing anything soonerWe just decided that if Himi ever needs a hiding again, Joe will wait till I agree to it, soo she shrugs comfortable in her power that should prevent Himi getting damaged againwrong You could argue that this is not the author condoning violence but rather shining a light upon it and yet there is this all too pervasive, anti establishment rhetoric here that argues that a child no matter what occurs is best with his foster father even if that person hits you so hard you are now deafThe pity of it all is that they are wrong you ve given him a solid base of love to grow from, for all the hardship you ve put him through You have been mother and father and home to him And probably tomorrow they will read you a smug little homily, castigating you for ill treatment and neglect And the ll congratulate themselves quite publically for rescuing the poor urchin from this callous ogre, this nightmare of a parent At least you worried enough about his wrong doing to try to correct itKerewin The Church, doctors, psychiatrists, meddling family members, North Islanders, the middle classes and child protective services all come in for snide asides in this book, which I think says about the authors own views on the establishment than any real commentary on the problem of child abuse in this country I said I hope your father knocks you sillier than you are now you stupid little bastard Kerewin as said to a 7 year old Simon over the phone and essentially giving permission for the beating that ensues, doubly horrific after her promises to protect him I know I exacerbated his reckless wounding of himself, but now I am not allowed to give him even shelterJoe demonstrating a lack of comprehension that his actions towards the child he loves left him deaf and brain damaged and his entire body covered in scar tissuewonder if he is up and about or playing the discreet vegetable stillKerewin What is this tone, levity I literally blanched and put the book down here.
Sure, it is possible to readThe Bone Peoplein ways that are less literal and you can equally put forth quotes that highlight other less distasteful aspects as well as the beautiful writing but that can t disguise the deeply disturbing undertone that pervaded the entire book In the end, I decided this was 550 pages of Keri Hulme expounding on Keri Hulme and the poor bedevilled Simon a mere plot device to make some statement about spiritual awakening and the power of love to overcome personal failings hide spoiler In A Tower On The New Zealand Sea Lives Kerewin Holmes, Part Maori, Part European, An Artist Estranged From Her Art, A Woman In Exile From Her Family One Night Her Solitude Is Disrupted By A Visitor A Speechless, Mercurial Boy Named Simon, Who Tries To Steal From Her And Then Repays Her With His Most Precious Possession As Kerewin Succumbs To Simon S Feral Charm, She Also Falls Under The Spell Of His Maori Foster Father Joe, Who Rescued The Boy From A Shipwreck And Now Treats Him With An Unsettling Mixture Of Tenderness And Brutality Out Of This Unorthodox Trinity Keri Hulme Has Created What Is At Once A Mystery, A Love Story, And An Ambitious Exploration Of The Zone Where Maori And European New Zealand Meet, Clash, And Sometimes Merge Winner Of Both A Booker Prize And Pegasus Prize For Literature, The Bone People Is A Work Of Unfettered Wordplay And Mesmerizing Emotional Complexity 4.
5 starsThis was twelve years in the writing and was rejected by many publishers It defies easy description and is very much set in the interface between Maori and western culture There is complexity in the structure and a dose of magic realism at the end The character of Kerewin Holmes is a remarkable creation who jumps out of the page The novel revolves around three characters Kerewin Holmes is a solitary woman living in a tower, a painter who does not paint and who is estranged from her family Joe is the adoptive father of Simon, a boy washed up on the beach, who isn t able to speak and who has considerable behavioural problems and no sense of personal property Joe has relatively recently lost his wife and child and he is now bringing up Simon alone In this he is struggling and he is physically abusive and violent towards Simon Hulme is a great storyteller and her descriptions are vivid watching the blood sky swell and grow, dyeing the rainclouds ominously, making the far edge of the sea blistered and scarlet There is a musicality and rhythm to it all Hulme switches perspectives between her characters and mixes poetry with prose, also mixing English with indigenous Maori language There are lots of themes All of the main characters are isolated A sense of home and family life is often seen as something to be strived for as Simon thinks He had endured it all Whatever they did to him, and however long it was going to take, he could endure it Provided that at the end he could go home if he can t go home, he might as well not be They might as well not be, because they only make sense together We have to be together If we are not, we are nothing We are broken Hulme has said that interwoven threads is one of her favourite images in the novel Hulme has taken two elements of postcolonial literature, language and magic realism and uses them to good effect.
One issue that cannot be avoided is the violence by Joe towards Simon When Hulme writes the violence she strips back the language and makes it very stark Hulme herself is very clear about why she did this to address an issue in New Zealand Hulme has stated that violence towards children was a pervasive social problem in New Zealand, among Maoris and Pakeha and she had written The Bone People in part to draw attention to it Hulme gives the reader nowhere to go with this Joe by being violent loses his Maori language and sides with the Pakeha, the western colonizers His attempt to destroy Simon seems linked to the destruction of Maori culture His redemption is linked to his rediscovery of his roots and culture I only found this partially convincing male violence is male violence, wherever it is found.
I must admit that I did struggle with some aspects of the ending, but the writing and language is captivating.
The Bone People had been on my to read shelf for almost a year, so I decided that it was a good first read of 2013 I wanted to like it indeed, for the first hundred pages or so, I did The language is unconventional but richly textured and evocative and exotic to this American boy This was enough that I didn t notice some major flaws until I was too far in to quit reading Once I noticed them, however, they were impossible to un notice.
My first problem with the book is that one slowly realizes that Kerewin is a bothersome character Since she is arguably the most important character, this is an issue If you ve familiar with the mysterious, sometimes scary realm of fan fiction, you ll know the term Mary Sue Kerewin has got the Mary Sues something bad The similarity of her name to the author s is only the first clue She s also fabulously wealthy, talented in art, music, and language, a survivalist, and oh she can kill a man with her bare hands In conversation and in monologue, she sounds exactly like someone with all of these traits would sound that is, she sounds ridiculous About three quarters of the way though the book, I was wincing every time she opened her mouth view spoiler Then there s the child abuse thing I understand that their relationship is supposed to represent the cultural conflict, but Joe beats the crap out of Simon Kerewin doesn t like it but doesn t really do much about it They both let the kid smoke and drink, for cryin out loud Joe s presented in a disturbingly sympathetic light, and we re supposed to be okay with it all at the end, because he finds an ancient god and is redeemed Yep, that s right Actually, everyone finds an ancient god, and all of their troubles vanish Kerewin s cancer disappears, and she is reunited with her family The ending of this book is just chock full of deus ex machina The last fifty pages creak under the weight of it Everything is mended between Joe and Simon They all move in together, and it s swell I could overlook the other flaws of the book if it wasn t for this The characters don t earn their own redemption or suffer because of their own mistakes The gods fix everything Maybe it s a grand metaphor for cultural healing or the power of tradition, but it just doesn t work hide spoiler 4.
5 5A rare mix of characters and languages and emotions indeed Gripping Kerewin is one of my all time favorite characters she s everything I am and so much The talent and the energy and the drive Simply beautiful I can t forgive Joe though I can t view spoiler I don t see any justification for his violence Is this how males get Is this how their logic works It has no place in society, whatever their excuses and reasoning and past horrific experiences may be What he did to Simon was unforgivable, and the way the book kept pushing them together was unbearable No one should go through that much torture and horde the blame for themselves hide spoiler So, okay, Ms Hulme, I already felt rather suffocated by your novel throughout the book, but you really tried to strangle me with your final chapters I was going to rate the novel 3 stars However, after those last chapters, I will now grant it a mere one star plus another one for the rather picturesque writing throughout the book Let me explain I rather liked the sing song quality of the narrative and in particular the inserted little snippets of poetry, contemplations and lamentations What I truly hated were the two main characters who are just utterly unsympathetic Hulme s apparent alter ego, Kerewin, has serious character flaws and feels so elevated from mere humans that she does not want to commit herself in any way, even if a six year old boy, whom she claims to love, is ferociously beaten on several occasions, the last abuse so severe that the boy is within inches of death She is convinced that the father, her new friend Joe, cares about his adopted son and that should be a sufficient reason to excuse his behaviour and for herself no reason to act in a decisive way Subsequently, at the end of the book, Hulme seems to insist that her readers accept her idea of the redemption and forgiveness of Joe It feels to me that she forgets that her readers might feel pretty disgusted by both Kerewin s and Joe s earlier pathological behaviour and are not in the mood to forget what transpired before To help her doubting readers, she introduces sudden magical occurences which result in the elevation of Joe to a moral, even saintly, human being Sorry, what drivel Needless to say, I was relieved to finish the book.
I cannot put my finger on why I love this book I didn t really think it all that special when I read it, but it has stayed in my mind so vividly when many a lesser book has dissipated from my memory I think the authors descriptions are understated while being vivid I read the book years ago and I can still remember clearly descriptions of meals cooked, of the matter of fact efficiency the main character displayed in her solitude All of the characters are overtly flawed, and the author doesn t just skip over that to tell a happily ever after story about friendship Maybe I loved this book because it is not a fairytale The characters you grow to love and empathize with are also the ones that drink to much and beat their children, or the ones who steal from you after you ve generously given them money These are not the heroes we put next to flags or on films, but they still come across the page as lovable A very provacative novel.
An original, personal and visceral novel, which for me is the kind of book that justifies the existence of the Booker Prize The surface story is about the interactions between three difficult and damaged people, but there is a lot to it than that plenty of Maori culture, mythology and language fortunately most of the latter is translated in the glossary and a mixture of first and third person narrative voices including quite a lot of poetry That may sound difficult, but the core story is quite gripping , though I must admit that I didn t try to follow everything Hulme s introduction says that it started as a short story, but the finished novel is much than that.
At the centre of the story is Kerewin Holmes, whose character must be at least slightly autobiographical She is an artist of mixed European and Maori heritage, estranged from her family, who leads a self sufficient and independent life in a tower she has built for herself on the New Zealand coast Her life is disturbed when she finds a mute boy with an injured foot in her tower The boy is Simon or Haimona , who turns out to be a survivor of a shipwreck in which his parents are believed to have died The third character is Joe, who found Simon and adopted him with his now dead wife Both Joe and Kerewin are heavy drinkers The story concerns their interactions, conflicts and culture clashes.
The story touches on some difficult themes, particularly Joe s relationship with Simon, which mixes extreme physical violence with a love that Simon needs than anything else Kerewin is asexual and dislikes physical contact, she is also fiercely independent Part of the story involves the mystery of Simon s background for example it is known that he already bore the scars of physical abuse before his adoption I won t say too much about the plot I m not sure I entirely believed the happy ending but it occupies such a small part of the book that it almost feels like an afterthought.
So a very interesting book, a little flawed but probably very memorable I don t know why it took me so long to get round to reading it, but I would certainly recommend it.