The Bone People by Keri Hulme

51sgUt0cyCL.Image._ Well, the big one. The Bone People by Keri Hulme. On my shelf for the best part of 30 years, which is apparently just over twice as long as it took to write. Often thought of (well, by me at least) as ‘unreadable’, it won the Booker Prize in 1985 after a judges’ bust-up: prize judge Joanna Lumley apparently hated it (impeccable taste) while constitutional toady Lord St John of Fawsley (a man who seemed to deserve his cruel nickname of Lord Cringe-On-All-Foursley) did not. So to the story: Kerewin Holmes (Hulme’s alter ego) is an artist who now cannot paint and lives in a tower, estranged from her parents and siblings. She speaks and thinks in a manner so self-absorbed that it would embarrass even the most solipsistic teenager. Into her life comes Simon, a small boy looked after by a man, Joe, who has lost his own wife and child. They all sort of get on. Simon’s background – virtually drowned and washed up alone on the wild shores of New Zealand’s South Island – means Simon has been traumatised to the point where he cannot speak. Later on, by the time his violent foster father has finished beating him into a coma, he can’t hear either. And yet of course Simon wants Joe back when his abuser comes out of prison – abused children often do. At this point Kerewin stops talking about her disappointments long enough for us to learn that she has stomach cancer – but finds herself miraculously cured by mumbo-jumbo and is reconciled with her family. Joe has a disgracefully short time in jug (memo to the New Zealand criminal justice system: hope things have sharpened up in this area a little since then) and is made whole again. Maori and Christian themes of forgiveness and reconciliation combine. The ending is impossibly, mystifyingly uplifting. Mute, deaf, horribly abused Simon is back where he – the book insists – belongs, with his adopted ‘family’: Kerewin and Joe. The self-pitying adults have been on a healing journey and spout much spiritual nonsense to prove it. Simon has merely been mistreated by those who are supposed to protect him. The novel is a lengthy fake, with a moral black hole at its heart.

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2 thoughts on “The Bone People by Keri Hulme

  1. What a pathetic misjudgement let alone an awfully sound bited synopsis of a great novel, whose onomatopoeic study of people living on the shore, on the edge, almost hanging from the side of the earth, deserves far more. It was an explosion of Maori sound like no other, and didn’t require the vast cast of the likes of The Luminaries. Kerewin should go down in history as one of the great characters of the 20th Century, her self indulgence rather mirrored in Lumley’s persistent topical philanthropism.

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