The Bone People

The Bone People (1984) by Keri Hulme, a twisting saga of broken families and the path toward individual redemption, is a daring exploration of New Zealand’s indigenous culture, particularly that of the Maori people. It is about the tangled ties between three misfits of mixed European and Maori descent and how they discover love in the midst of terror and violence. Half of the novel focuses on the characters’ interactions with each other, while the other half focuses on their own journeys.

The three main characters in the story are Kerewin, a part-Maori artist who feels that seclusion is the best way to face the world; Simon, a six-year-old boy who is unable to speak and shows up out of nowhere during a rainstorm; and Joe, Simon’s adoptive father, who is a Maori factory worker with an abusive streak. As the story switches between these characters’ points of view, Hulme tries to convey each of their longings for human connection.

Due to its brutal description of child battering, as well as its quasi-spiritual themes, the book divided critics when it was awarded the Booker Prize in 1985. However, the issues that this narrative raises are ones that apply to everyone. Traditional Maori legends might be used in the context of the present-day world, and the book’s message of unity between the Maori and European cultures is another key subject.

The story is set in a bleak world, with issues of domestic violence, parent-child relationships, and state involvement all brought up in the story. Despite its controversial subjects, the narrative unravels with beautiful poetry and conjures up New Zealand’s people, culture, and scenery with lyrical perceptiveness.

Memorable Quotes

They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.

Page 4, The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Between waking and being awake there is a moment full of doubt and dream, when you struggle to remember what the place and when the time and whether you really are. A peevish moment of wonderment as to where the real world lies.

Page 36, The Bone People by Keri Hulme

I have watched the river and the sea for a lifetime. I have seen rivers rob soil from the roots of trees until the giants came foundering down. I have watched shores slip and perish, the channels silt and change; what was beach become a swamp and a headland tumble into the sea. An island has eroded in silent pain since my boyhood, and reefs have become islands. Yet the old people used to say, People pass away, but not the land. It remains forever.

Page 336, The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Further Reading

Triple-forged Trinity by Claudia Tate, The New York Times

Keri Hulme’s ‘the bone people’ by Marian Evans, Medium

Childlike Colonizers: On Keri Hulme’s The Bone People by Emily Burns Morgan, Propeller Magazine

Keri Hulme: Bait expectations by Keri Welham, Stuff

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