The Bone People by Keri Hulme
The Bone People is, by turns, magical, beautiful, powerful, deeply troubling, infuriating and disappointing. On the first page is a letter from the author, saying that the book took her 13 years to write and then no one would publish it. Eventually the book was published by a tiny publishing collective. This meant that the book had no editor other than Hulme herself, which she claimed was a good thing because an editor would have her idiosyncratic artistry. This claim made me rather skeptical initially, but the book did win the Booker Prize so I figured she couldn’t have gone too far astray. In the end I’m not sure whether she is right or not. The wrong editor might have toned down her word play and unconventional use of language (the writing reminded me a bit of At Swim, Two Boys, but more accessible) which would have been a shame. But the right editor might have stopped the occasional over-indulgence and told her to strengthen parts of the story. (There’s a good discussion of the lack of editing in The Bone People on The Guardian)
Personally, if I were editing the book, I would have cut out the first couple of pages of poetic ambiguity and mysterious foreshadowing. I hate that sort of thing. But then the real story started and I was won over:
“She had debated, in the frivolity of the beginning, whether to build a hole or a tower a hole because she was fond of hobbits, or a tower- well, a tower for many reasons, but chiefly because she was like spiral stairways.“
Kerewin decides to build a tower and fills it with bonsai and bioluminescent toadstools, books and guitars. The tower has a fantasy feel, but the story is tied down to reality by frequent references to human physical frailty- injuries, numbing cold, hangovers- lots of hangovers. Kerewin built the tower seeking isolation, but finds herself developing a friendship with Simon, a boy who doesn’t speak, and his adoptive father, Joe.
Both Kerewin and Joe have Maori heritage and their speech frequently switches into Maori. I spent most of the book wondering whether New Zealand readers could be expected to understand a bit of basic Maori like American readers can usually understand a few words of Spanish or whether the author was being deliberately obscure and mysterious. It turns out I was wrong on both fronts- there was actually an appendix at the back of the book with all of the translations!
There’s nothing I like better than a story about friendship, particularly among reserved, isolated people who don’t make friends easily. Kerewin, Simon, and Joe each have problems of their own, but little by little, in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back sort of way, they develop a strengthening relationship.
After this is where the book became first troubling and then disappointing. Frustratingly I can’t write about it here without giving away too much. I’m going to add a section at the end for people who have read the book. I’m still glad I read this book, I think. The parts that were good were wonderful and unique and I would hate to have missed them. But it also upset me as much as any book I have ever read, so if you decide to read it, be prepared.
***For those who have read the book***
First: How on earth could you give permission to a known child abuser to hit a child? Even if you were angry with the child, how could you possibly be so weak as to indulge that anger in such a fashion?
Second: The ending felt completely wrong to me. It asks me to forgive Kerewin and Joe and believe that Simon is better off with them. I can imagine a book which would allow me to forgive them. I certainly wanted desperately for the to redeem themselves. But their redemption came far too easily and quickly for me to accept it. One mystical spiritual experience apiece and suddenly I am supposed to believe that they are over all of their anger problems and that Simon will be safe and cared for with them? To me the ending is nothing but the classic abuser promise “It’ll be different this time. I’ll never hurt you again.” It’s terrible to see this promise being held up as a happy ending. If instead, the book had shown Kerewin and Joe slowly rebuilding a relationship with Simon and development of trust over time, maybe I could believe in the happy ending. As it is, the ending is hollow and empty.