The Bone People

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The Bone People
First edition cover
AuthorKeri Hulme
Cover artistCover design by Neil Stuart, cover illustration by Jack Freize
CountryNew Zealand
PublisherSpiral Press
Publication date
February 1984
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages450 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN0-330-29387-7 (paperback edition)

The Bone People (styled by the writer and in some editions as the bone people[1]) is a Booker Prize-winning 1984 novel by New Zealand writer Keri Hulme.


Hulme was turned down by many publishing houses before she found a small publishing house in New Zealand called Spiral, a collective of feminist women including Maori leader Irihapeti Ramsden.[2][3] In rejecting the manuscript, William Collins, Sons wrote:[4]

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

In 1985 Spiral collaborated with English publishing house Hodder & Stoughton.


The title The Bone People draws parallels between the Māori people, who use bone extensively in art and tools, and the notion of the core or skeleton of a person: in the novel the characters are figuratively stripped to the bone. In Māori, the term iwi, usually referring to a tribal group, literally means "bone". Thus, in the novel, "E nga iwi o nga iwi" p. 395, translates to "O the bones of the people" (where 'bones' stands for ancestors or relations), but it also translates to "O the people of the bones" (i.e. the beginning people, the people who make another people).

Plot summary[edit]

The Bone People is an unusual story of love. What makes it unique are the way of telling, the subject matter, and the form of love that the story narrates. This is not a romance, but a story filled with violence, fear and twisted emotions. At the story's core, however, are three people who struggle very hard to figure out what love is and how to find it. The book is divided into two major sections, the first involving the characters interacting with each other, and the second half involving their individual travels.

In the first half of the novel, 7-year-old Simon shows up at the hermit Kerewin's tower on a gloomy and stormy night. Simon is mute and thus is unable to explain his motives. When Simon's foster father, Joe, arrives to pick him up in the morning, Kerewin gets to know their curious story. After a freak storm years earlier, Simon was found washed up on the beach with no memory and 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 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.

Following an emotionally trying event, the three are driven violently apart. Simon witnesses a violent death and seeks Kerewin out, but she is angry with him for stealing some of her possessions and will not listen. Simon reacts by kicking in the side of her guitar, a much-prized gift from her estranged family, whereupon she tells him frostily to leave. The boy goes to the town and breaks a series of shop windows, and when he is returned home by the police Joe beats him more viciously than he has ever done previously. Simon, who has concealed a shard of glass from his crime, stabs his father. Both are hospitalized, and Joe is sent to prison for child abuse.

In the second half of the novel, Joe returns from his prison sentence, Simon is still in the hospital, and Kerewin is seriously and inexplicably ill. Joe loses custody of his adopted son. He travels aimlessly and finds an old spiritual man dying. Through him, Joe learns the possible identity of Simon's father. Simon is sent to a children's home, and Kerewin demolishes her tower, leaving with the expectation of dying within the year.

Eventually Kerewin takes custody of Simon, keeping him close to her and Joe. Without Kerewin's knowledge or permission, Joe contacts Kerewin's family, resulting in a joyous reconciliation. The final scene of the novel depicts the reunion of Kerewin, Simon and Joe, who are all celebrating back at the beach where Kerewin has rebuilt her home, this time in the shape of a shell with many spirals. The end of the novel, despite many things remaining in the air, is a happy one.


  • Kerewin Holmes – Kerewin is a reclusive artist who is running away from her past. She is a formerly gifted painter who has lost the feel for her art since winning a massive lottery and falling out with her family. At the beginning of the novel she feels that she has lost direction in her life and wants all other people to leave her alone. However, after becoming involved with Simon and Joe, she learns to heal her life.
  • Joe Gillayley – Joe is Simon's foster father. He is down to earth and spiritual at the same time, but his alcoholism clouds his judgement, particularly in his raising of Simon. Joe seems to both love and respect Kerewin, but also to compete with her. He is deeply scarred by his wife's death.
  • Simon P. Gillayley – Simon is a mute, precocious child 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. Simon secretly calls himself Clare or Claro. His life before meeting Joe is never satisfactorily explained. It is hinted that he was abused before meeting Joe – Joe refers to seeing strange marks on Simon even before he left his own. Simon also reacts in strong negative ways to irrational things, such as needles, having his hair cut, or hearing the French language spoken. (It's likely that his birth father was a dissolute Irish heroin addict who was involved in drug smuggling.)


Isolation is one of the major themes of The Bone People. Kerewin isolates herself from the world in her tower; Simon is isolated from the world by his inability to speak; Joe is isolated by his grief. Characters' motivations are shown to the reader through paragraphs that detail their thoughts, which serve to illustrate how their isolation leads to misunderstanding.

Additionally, violence plays a role as a means of communication and, in their culture, as what Leanne Christine Zainer refers to as "an inevitable part of life."[5] Joe, for instance, considers violence a tool with which to teach Simon. Simon, who knows no different, becomes violent when he is unable to make people understand him.

A further important theme is Hulme's utopian vision of a possible unity between Maori and Western culture in New Zealand. She does not simply "write back" against Eurocentric hegemony, but also includes Western culture in her healing vision. This is a major difference from postcolonial writers such as Chinua Achebe who write almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the colonized and reject Western philosophy. Note how Kerewin, Joe and Simon also function as metaphors/allegories in the context of postcolonial discourse: Joe could be seen as representing Maori culture, Simon represents European culture, and Kerewin represents the culture clash between the two (Kerewin is a "hybrid", part-Maori, part Pākehā). In this context, the novel's magical realism makes sense: the characters' illnesses (cancer, suicide attempt, alcoholism) can be regarded, in a figurative way, as "cultural illnesses" that are overcome in the end of the novel, when Kerewin, Joe and Simon form a sort of "patchwork family".

Awards and nominations[edit]

The Bone People won both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Literature in 1985.


  • 1983, New Zealand, Spiral/Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0-14-008922-5, first published in 1984, then in the United States in 1985 by Louisiana State University Press, then in 1986 by Penguin Books, soft-cover.
  • 2010, One of six novels comprising Penguin Books' Ink series, a subset of seventy-five 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. ISBN 978-0-14-311645-5


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Jordison, Sam (20 November 2009). "Booker club: The Bone People by Keri Hulme". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 4 June 2016.
  3. ^ "Obituary: Irihapeti Ramsden". NZ Herald. 2003-04-11. ISSN 1170-0777. Retrieved 2019-01-05.
  4. ^ Weir, Jim (2007). Strong language: very quotable New Zealand quotes. Auckland: New Holland Publishers. p. 58. ISBN 978-1-86966-182-3.
  5. ^ Zainer, Leanne Christine (1998). Enduring Violence: Representation and Response in Contemporary Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin. p. 96.