The Bone People

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The Bone People
BonePeople.JPG
First edition cover
AuthorKeri Hulme
Cover artistCover design by Basia Smolnicki, cover illustration by Keri Hulme
CountryNew Zealand
LanguageEnglish
PublisherSpiral
Publication date
February 1984
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages450 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN0-9597593-2-8 (first edition)
OCLC36312027

The Bone People, styled by the writer and in some editions as the bone people,[1][2] is a 1984 novel by New Zealand writer Keri Hulme. Set on the coast of the South Island of New Zealand, the novel focuses on three characters, all of whom are isolated in different ways: a reclusive artist, a mute child, and the child's foster father. Over the course of the novel the trio develop a tentative relationship, are driven apart by violence, and reunite. Māori and Pākehā (New Zealand European) culture, myths and language are blended through the novel. The novel has polarised critics and readers, with some praising the novel for its power and originality, while others have criticised Hulme's writing style and portrayals of violence.

Hulme spent many years working on the novel, but was unable to find a mainstream publisher who was willing to accept the book without significant editing; it was eventually published by the small all-women collective of Spiral. After initial commercial success in New Zealand, the book was published overseas and became the first New Zealand novel and first debut novel to win the Booker Prize in 1985, although not without controversy; two of the five judges opposed the book's choice for its portrayals of child abuse and violence. Nevertheless, the novel has remained popular into the 21st century, continuing to sell well in New Zealand and overseas, and is widely recognised as a New Zealand literary classic.

Plot summary[edit]

Kerewin lives in a tower overlooking the sea on the coast of the South Island. She is isolated from her family and interacts little with the local community, but is able to live independently after winning a lottery and investing well. On a gloomy and stormy afternoon a young child, Simon, appears at the tower. He is mute and communicates with Kerewin through hand signals and notes. He is picked up the next morning by a family friend; later that evening Simon's foster father, Joe, visits Kerewin to thank her for looking after Simon. After a freak storm years earlier, Simon was found washed up on the beach with very few clues as to his identity. Despite Simon's mysterious background, Joe and his wife Hana took the boy in. Later, Joe's infant son and Hana both died, forcing Joe to bring the troubled and troublesome Simon up on his own.

Kerewin finds herself developing a tentative relationship with the boy and his father. Gradually it becomes clear that Simon is a deeply traumatised child, whose strange behaviours Joe is unable to cope with. Kerewin discovers that, in spite of the real familial love between them, Joe is physically abusing Simon. She confronts Joe and he promises not to beat Simon without her permission.

Following an emotionally trying event, the three are driven violently apart. Simon sees the aftermath of a violent death and seeks Kerewin out for support, but she is angry with him for stealing a special knife. Simon reacts by punching her; she instinctively hits him in the chest and in response he kicks in the side of her guitar, a much-prized gift from her estranged mother. Kerewin tells him to get out. Simon goes to the town and breaks a series of shop windows, and when he is returned home by the police Joe calls Kerewin, who gives Joe permission to beat the child (but tells him not to "overdo it"). Joe beats Simon severely, believing he has driven Kerewin away. Simon, who has concealed a shard of glass from a shop window, stabs his father. Both are hospitalised, with Simon falling into a coma. Joe is released quickly but sent to prison for three months for child abuse, and in the meantime Kerewin leaves town and demolishes her tower.

Simon eventually recovers, albeit with some loss of hearing and brain damage, and is sent to live in foster care against his wishes. He is unhappy and continually runs away, trying to get back to Joe and Kerewin. After Joe's release from prison, he travels aimlessly and attempts to kill himself, but is rescued by an dying old man (a kaumātua) who says he has been waiting for Joe. He asks Joe to take over guardianship of a sacred waka (canoe), containing the spirit of a god, which Joe accepts. In the meantime, She becomes seriously ill, most likely with stomach cancer, but does not seek medical care. On the point of death in a mountain cabin, she is visited by a spirit of some kind and cured.

Kerewin returns to her community and takes custody of Simon. Joe also returns, bringing with him the sacred spirit. Without Kerewin's knowledge or permission, he contacts Kerewin's family, resulting in a joyous reconciliation. The final scene of the novel depicts the reunion of Kerewin, Simon and Joe, celebrating with family and friends back at the beach where Kerewin has rebuilt the old marae (communal meeting house), not as a tower but in the shape of a shell with many spirals. The end of the novel is an optimistic and hopeful one.

Themes and characters[edit]

Author Keri Hulme with a catch of whitebait at Ōkārito; the character Kerewin Holmes has similarities to Hulme

The novel focuses on three main characters, all of whom are isolated in different ways.[3][4] In the short prologue at the start of the novel, the then-unnamed characters are described as "nothing more than people by themselves", but together "the hearts and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, the instruments of change".[4][5] The three characters are:[3][4][6][7]

  • Kerewin Holmes – Kerewin lives in an isolated tower by the sea, estranged from her family and community. She is part-Māori, part-Pākehā, and asexual. She is skilled, knowledgeable and creative, but although seeing herself as a painter finds herself unable to paint.[8] At the outset of the novel she spends her days fishing and drinking. She has been described as a "clear stand-in for the author".[9] Hulme said that Holmes began as an alter-ego character but "escaped out of my control and developed a life of her own".[10]
  • Simon P. Gillayley – Simon is a mute child, aged six or seven, with an immense interest in details of the world around him. Simon has a deep attachment to both Joe and Kerewin, but he shows his love in odd ways. He exhibits a disregard for personal property. He is isolated from others by his inability to speak, and others mistake his muteness for stupidity. His life before meeting Joe is never described in detail, although it is hinted that he was abused before meeting Joe. He is Pākehā, with blonde hair and blue eyes.
  • Joe Gillayley – Joe is Simon's foster father. His alcoholism clouds his judgement, particularly in his raising of Simon, who he physically abuses. Joe seems to both love and respect Kerewin, but also to compete with her. He is deeply scarred and isolated by his wife's death, and is disconnected from his Māori heritage.

The relationship between these three troubled characters is characterised by violence and difficulty in communicating, yet over the course of the novel they bond and become "the bone people". Each represents aspects of New Zealand's racial culture.[11] The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature describes them as becoming "a new multicultural group, founded on Māori spirituality and traditional ritual, who offer transformative hope to a country stunted by the violence of its divided colonial legacy".[4] In Māori, the term iwi, usually referring to a tribal group, literally means "bone". Thus, in the novel, Simon imagines Joe saying the phrase "E nga iwi o nga iwi", which the book's glossary explains: "It means, O the bones of the people (where "bones" stands for ancestors or relations), or, O the people of the bones (i.e. the beginning people, the people who make another people)."[12][13]

The spiral form frequently appears as a symbol throughout the novel, and is linked to the koru as an "old symbol of rebirth" in Māori culture.[14] An early review by New Zealand writer and academic Peter Simpson noted how particularly apt it was for the book to have been published by the Spiral collective, because "the spiral form is central to the novel's meaning and design; it is in effect the code of the work informing every aspect from innumerable local details to the overall structure".[15] It represents the sense of community, cultural integration and open-endedness that gives the characters hope at the end of the novel.[16][11]

Publication history[edit]

As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Hulme began writing short stories about a mute child called Simon Peter. She continued to write about this character and develop the material which would eventually form a novel into adulthood, while working a series of short seasonal jobs such as tobacco-picking and later working as a journalist and television producer.[1][10] The novel's two other key characters, Kerewin Holmes and Joe Gillayley, were developed at a later stage.[10]

When Hulme began submitting her draft novel to publishers, she was told to trim it down and rewrite it; she reworked the manuscript seven times, with some assistance from her mother on editing the early chapters.[10] In 1973 she moved to Ōkārito, on the West Coast of the South Island, where the book was completed.[1] At least four publishers rejected the novel; at least two did not refuse it outright but required it to be edited significantly. Hulme refused, however, to allow them to "go through [her] work with shears".[10] In rejecting the manuscript, William Collins, Sons wrote:[17]

Undoubtedly Miss Hulme can write but unfortunately we don't understand what she is writing about.

Hulme had almost given up on publication when she met Marian Evans, a founder of the Women's Gallery and a member of the women's publishing collective Spiral. In 1981, Hulme sent Evans a copy of the manuscript, which Evans passed onto Māori leaders Miriama Evans (no relation to Marian) and Irihapeti Ramsden.[18][19] Both Miriama and Ramsden saw the book as a Māori novel, with Ramsden comparing Hulme's writing to her childhood experiences of listening to Māori elders share oral traditions and stories.[7] They decided to publish the work as a Spiral collective, on a limited budget but with help from other supporters and institutions.[18][19][9][20] It was typeset by the Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association, and proofread by members of Spiral (Marian later acknowledged that the proofreading "was uneven, dependent on the skills of various helpers").[10][19] The novel's publication was also supported by a couple of small grants from the New Zealand Literary Fund.[21][19]

The first edition, a print-run of 2,000 copies published in February 1984, sold out in weeks.[9][22][23] After the second edition sold out similarly quickly, Spiral collaborated with English publishing house Hodder & Stoughton to co-publish the third edition.[24] A further 20,000 copies were sold of this edition.[9] The first American edition was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1985.[10] The novel has been continuously in print in New Zealand since it was first published, and has been translated into nine languages (Dutch, Norwegian, German, Swedish, Finnish, Slovak, French, Danish and Spanish).[25] In 2010 it was one of six novels comprising Penguin Books' Ink series, a subset of 75 titles re-released in celebration of the publishing house's 75th anniversary, each with jacket art "specially designed by some of the world's best artists working in the world of tattoos and illustration". The cover features art by New Zealand tattoo artist Pepa Heller.[26][27]

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Author Keri Hulme in 1983

The novel polarised readers and reviewers, receiving both critical acclaim and strong criticism.[1][21] It was praised by authors such as Alice Walker, who said in a letter to Spiral that it "is just amazingly wondrously great",[23] and fellow New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera, who said he "was totally amazed that a book that I knew had been put together by a small feminist publication company had made it to the top of the literary world".[1] Publisher Fergus Barrowman said: "It was fantastic, unlike anything else. It completely enlivened and altered my sense of New Zealand literature."[28] On the other hand, contemporary reviewer Agnes-Mary Brooke, writing for The Press, called it "grandiose, inflated nonsense".[1] Judith Dale, in a review for Landfall, asked whether the novel's unsettled structure formed part of the appeal: "Mystery or muddle, mess or masterpiece, is it precisely the unresolved, unsettling, unsettled and dissolving strands of the bone people which make up its attraction for other readers as for me?"[23]

New Zealand academic and writer C. K. Stead suggested in a 1985 article that Hulme should not be identified as a Māori writer, on the basis that she was only one-eighth Māori. He praised the novel however for its "imaginative strength" and said it was at its core "a work of great simplicity and power".[29] His views on Hulme's identity were controversial, with other critics at the time calling them racist and reactionary.[30] On another occasion he criticised the novel for its portrayals of violence and child abuse: "It was a tremendously powerful and interesting book, very original, but there were certain things I was certainly troubled about."[1] Nevertheless, years later he described it as "New Zealand's finest novel".[28] Hulme said in response to Stead's comments on her racial identity that he was "wrong, on all counts".[31] In 1991 Hulme and other authors withdrew stories from an anthology Stead was engaged to edit, with Hulme citing his "extensive history of insult and attack that surrounds [his] relations with Maori and Polynesian writers".[30]

The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature observes that the novel requires active concentration from the reader, given the mixture of poetry and prose, New Zealand slang and Māori phrases, realistic and supernatural elements, and tonal shifts from ordinary and banal to lyrical and sacred. It concludes, though, that: "However one responds to the novel, it must be acknowledged as one of contemporary New Zealand literature's most powerful rewritings of the ideology of nationalism and a prophetic vision of New Zealand's multicultural future."[4]

The novel received praise from overseas publications. The Washington Post called it a novel of "sweeping power" and an "original, overwhelming, near-great work of literature, which does not merely shed light on a small but complex and sometimes misunderstood country, but also, more generally, enlarges our sense of life's possible dimensions".[13] Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times concluded that "for all its often harrowing subject-matter, this first novel from a New Zealand writer radiates vitality ... New Zealand's people, its heritage and landscapes are conjured up with uncanny poetry and perceptiveness".[32] Claudia Tate for The New York Times wrote:[33]

Set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, bound in Maori myth and entwined with Christian symbols, Miss Hulme's provocative novel summons power with words, as in a conjurer's spell. She casts her magic on three fiercely unique characters, but reminds us that we, like them, are "nothing more than people", and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection. But they, and perhaps we too, are capable of change.

The novel's popularity has endured into the 21st century; in 2004, it remained in the New Zealand fiction bestseller list.[1] In 2005, a public conference was held at the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington to mark 20 years since the Booker Prize win.[18] In 2006, the novel was voted New Zealand's favourite book in a public poll as part of the inaugural NZ Book Month.[34] In 2018, it came third in two separate polls by The Spinoff of the favourite New Zealand books of readers and literary experts respectively.[35][36] It is the favourite novel of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.[37] In 2022, it was included on the "Big Jubilee Read" list of 70 books by Commonwealth authors, selected to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II.[38]

Hulme died in December 2021. Her New York Times obituary reported that the book had at that time sold over 1.2 million copies.[39] In July 2022, her family announced that the original novel manuscript would be sold at auction, with the proceeds to be used to support Māori authors, in accordance with Hulme's final wishes.[40]

Awards[edit]

In 1984, the novel won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction.[41] The following year it won the Pegasus Prize for Literature, which that year had been earmarked for Māori fiction,[10] and subsequently became the first New Zealand novel and first debut novel to win the Booker Prize.[40][42][24]

The judges of the 1985 Booker Prize were Norman St John-Stevas, Joanna Lumley, Marina Warner, Nina Bawden and Jack Walter Lambert.[43] The judges were split on The Bone People as winner: Lumley and Bawden opposed it, with Lumley arguing that the book's subject matter of child abuse was "indefensible", "no matter how lyrically written".[44] The other three were in favour; Warner considered it "a really extraordinary achievement, a very, very unusual piece of writing, the writing on every page springs surprises".[44] St John-Stevas, who sat as chairman of the judging panel, said it was a "a highly poetic book, filled with striking imagery and insights".[45]

Hulme was unable to attend the Booker Prize ceremony as she was in the United States at the time on a promotional tour following her receipt of the Pegasus Prize. She was called from the awards ceremony, and her response (broadcast live on television) was, "You're pulling my leg, aren't you? Bloody hell."[45][44] Irihapeti Ramsden, Marian Evans and Miriama Evans of Spiral attended the ceremony itself on her behalf. They recited a karanga (Māori call) as they accepted the award, which led to Philip Purser of The Sunday Telegraph describing them as "a posse of keening harpies".[19][44] The reaction to the win was generally one of surprise; it was described by Philip Howard for The Sunday Times as a "dark horse" and a "controversial choice",[44] and by The Guardian as "the strangest novel ever to win the Booker".[7]

When asked what the Booker Prize meant to her, Hulme said: "The difference will be having a large amount of money and being able to keep doing the things I like – reading, writing, painting, fishing and building."[45] David Lange, prime minister at the time, sent her a congratulatory telegram, ending with: No reira, e te puawai o Aotearoa, e mihi aroha ki a koe ("And so, to you, a flower of Aotearoa, this loving greeting").[1]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Welham, Keri (2004). "Keri Hulme: Bait expectations". Stuff. Retrieved 10 July 2022.
  2. ^ English, James F. (2005). Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 389, footnote 27. ISBN 978-0-674-01884-6. I have followed Hulme is using all lowercase letters for the book's title, although later editions and critical discussions of the book have not always done so
  3. ^ a b "Bluffer's guide to The Bone People by Keri Hulme". Read NZ Te Pou Muramura. 15 May 2014. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e Worthington, Kim (2006). "bone people, the". In Robinson, Roger; Wattie, Nelson (eds.). The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195583489.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-1917-3519-6. OCLC 865265749. Retrieved 12 July 2022.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ Hulme 1984, p. 4.
  6. ^ Knudsen, Eva Rusk (2004). "4: The Void as Creative Metaphor". The Circle & the Spiral: A Study of Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Māori Literature. Rodopi. ISBN 9789042010482. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  7. ^ a b c Parekowhai, Cushla; Evans, Marian (1 February 2022). "Keri Hulme obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 July 2022.
  8. ^ Dale 1985, pp. 414–415.
  9. ^ a b c d Jordison, Sam (20 November 2009). "Booker club: The Bone People by Keri Hulme". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 June 2016.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Worthington, Kim (2006). "Hulme, Keri". In Robinson, Roger; Wattie, Nelson (eds.). The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195583489.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-1917-3519-6. OCLC 865265749. Retrieved 10 July 2022.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. ^ a b Melhop 1999, p. 99.
  12. ^ Hulme 1984, p. 546.
  13. ^ a b Ward, Elizabeth (1 December 1985). "A First Novel of Sweeping Power". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  14. ^ Hulme 1984, p. 55.
  15. ^ "Does The Bone People cut it as a Kiwi classic?". Read NZ Te Pou Muramura. 30 April 2014. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  16. ^ Dale 1985, pp. 420–421.
  17. ^ Weir, Jim (2007). Strong language: very quotable New Zealand quotes. Auckland: New Holland Publishers. p. 58. ISBN 978-1-86966-182-3.
  18. ^ a b c Quirke, Michelle (26 October 2005). "Bone of contention". The Dominion Post. p. B7. ProQuest 338187238. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  19. ^ a b c d e Evans, Marian (18 January 2016). "Keri Hulme's 'the bone people'". Medium. Spiral Collectives. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  20. ^ "Obituary: Irihapeti Ramsden". The New Zealand Herald. 11 April 2003. ISSN 1170-0777. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  21. ^ a b Alley, Elizabeth (12 January 2022). "While we're talking about Keri..." The Dominion Post. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  22. ^ Dann 1985, p. 123.
  23. ^ a b c Dale 1985, p. 413.
  24. ^ a b Hunt, Tom (25 October 2014). "From a doorstop to the Man Booker prize". The Press. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  25. ^ "Formats and Editions of The bone people". WorldCat. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  26. ^ Hulme, Keri (2010). the bone people. Baton Rouge: Penguin USA. ISBN 978-0-14-311645-5.
  27. ^ Nawotka, Edward (2 July 2010). "Literary "Ink": Behind Penguin's Tattoo Covered Modern Classics". Publishing Perspectives. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  28. ^ a b Braunias, Steve (26 March 2022). "Blank pages: The Search for". The New Zealand Herald. p. A15. ProQuest 2642896174. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  29. ^ Stead 1985.
  30. ^ a b Mitenkova, Maria (2017). "Challenging Biculturalism: The Case of C. K. Stead". Journal of New Zealand Literature. 35 (1): 115–131. JSTOR 90015308. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  31. ^ "Hulme, Keri". Read NZ Te Pou Muramura. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  32. ^ Kemp, Peter (27 October 1985). "Boy on the beach; Review of 'The Bone People' by Keri Hulme". Sunday Times. Retrieved 20 July 2022.
  33. ^ Tate, Claudia (17 November 1985). "Triple-Forced Trinity". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  34. ^ Herrick, Linda (13 October 2006). "The Bone People still NZ's favourite book". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  35. ^ "The 50 best New Zealand books of the past 50 years: The official listicle". The Spinoff. 14 May 2018. Retrieved 15 July 2022.
  36. ^ "Winner of our great book prize announced as Elizabeth Knox is proved most popular author of all times". The Spinoff. 24 April 2018. Retrieved 15 July 2022.
  37. ^ Gates, Charlie (26 September 2020). "Warcraft, murderous politicians and Bowie – the cultural tastes of NZ's leaders". Stuff. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  38. ^ "The Big Jubilee Read: A literary celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's record-breaking reign". BBC. 17 April 2022. Retrieved 18 June 2022.
  39. ^ Frost, Natasha (3 January 2022). "Keri Hulme, 74, a Novelist Who Won the Booker Prize". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2022.
  40. ^ a b "Bone People sale proceeds to help Māori writers". Otago Daily Times. 15 July 2022. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  41. ^ "Past Winners by Year: 1984". New Zealand Book Awards Trust. Retrieved 10 July 2022.
  42. ^ Wevers, Lydia. "Story: Fiction – Page 10. Māori and Pacific writers and writing about Māori". Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  43. ^ "The Booker Prize 1985". The Booker Prizes. Retrieved 14 July 2022.
  44. ^ a b c d e Shaffi, Sarah. "How Keri Hulme's The Bone People changed the way we read now". The Booker Prizes. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  45. ^ a b c Matthews, Philip (1 January 2022). "Obituary: Keri Hulme – an insightful, poetic, persistent writer". Stuff. Retrieved 12 July 2022.

Bibliography[edit]