The Bone People is New Zealander Keri Hulme’s first and (to date) only novel. It tells the story of Kerewin Holmes, an artist living a reclusive life on the coast. Early in the story she meets a mute boy, Simon, and later his adopted father, Joe. The story unfolds from there, exploring the relationships between the three as well as issues of Māori identity and mysticism. Hulme never allows her narrative to slip into sentimentality: the relationship between Kerewin and Joe is not romantic but rather stems from a shared understanding of each other; Kerewin’s relationship with Simon often descends into impatience and frustration at Simon’s muteness, his habitual theft, and his difficult behaviour; and Joe’s relationship with Simon is tainted by his tendency to hit the boy when drunk. The dynamics between the three change during the story and they reach a happier state through each other.
This primary storyline is interesting and well handled. And the perspective it offers is fascinating: the writing often feels more like a stream of consciousness than anything else. However, the book suffers from the rest of what’s there. It is far too long, the sections delving into the more magical and mystical sides of the story make little sense and the ending is somewhat contrived (although emotionally satisfying). And while sections of it are exceptionally well written, this is not sustained. I would say that for every paragraph of beautifully phrased, lyrical sounding prose, there are probably two or three paragraphs of hard to follow redundant passages. I found the book absolutely fascinating for the first 250 or so pages, and then the remaining 200 felt like a bit of a slog. This isn’t because the style changes significantly, simply that it becomes tiresome after a while.
So after this, I was left wondering: why did this book win? I should acknowledge now that I haven’t read any of the competitors for 1985 aside from this, so the answer may lie to some extent with the competition. But I suspect more is going on, and I have three ideas that may explain its success. Firstly, the book is clearly deeply personal. Kerewin Holmes is a relatively obvious manipulation of Keri Hulme and both share many traits. Secondly, Hulme had a hard time getting the book published. Most publishers rejected it due to its impenetrability and Hulmes’ refusal to make significant edits (one suspects that after spending 12 years working on the book, she became very attached to it). When a small feminist publishing house in New Zealand did accept it (two of the three women in charge had connections with the same Māori tribe as Hulme), their initial two print runs each of 2,000 copies sold out quickly enough for Hodder & Stoughton to come into the picture and launch the book to further recognition. This speaks to a level of public support I suspect the judges would have to acknowledge. And finally, for all its faults, Hulme is definitely doing something different. She is challenging more conventionally structured novels and carving out a space to explore Māori identity, something which receives little recognition in mainstream works. This last reason is a good reason to pick the book up. And while I didn’t find the experience a consistently enjoyable one, I definitely found it to be interesting.