Although the action of The Bone People is roughly chronological, the fact that it is related through the thoughts, memories, dreams, and associations of the three central characters results in a dual progression. Each character is moving forward through the months of association with the others; at the same time, each character is recapitulating his earlier life and reinterpreting it while he interprets the responses and the revelations of the other two.
At the beginning of the story, Kerewin Holmes, the protagonist, is defiantly alone in the “Tower,” a home which she has built and where she lives and paints. She has cut herself off from her large, loving, bossy family, and she has resigned herself to a celibate life, recognizing her peculiar distaste for any physical contact.
Into her solitude comes Simon P. Gillayley, a mysterious young boy who was washed ashore, without identification and without the power of speech, several years before and who has been informally adopted by Joseph N. Gillayley, whose own wife and child died shortly after Simon’s appearance. Because he is mute and terrified, Simon, too, is alone. His thefts and acts of vandalism have made him an outcast in the community, and Joe Gillayley’s fits of drunken abuse keep Simon off balance, even though the boy refuses to admit that his beloved foster father has ever harmed him.
As the story proceeds, Kerewin Holmes comes to love both Simon and Joe. What begins as a casual contact, Simon’s invasion of the Tower and Joe’s subsequent call to apologize, continues as a series of visits and dinners at one home or the other. Yet the seeming intimacy masks a polite and guarded relationship, in which each character guards his own secrets. Even though his cousin James Piripi Tainui warns Joe that he must admit his flaws to Kerewin, Joe cannot bring himself to confess that he is periodically driven to beat the son whom he truly loves. Because Simon does not wish Kerewin to know that he is “bad,” he conceals from her the fact that he is being abused. Perhaps the greatest reticence, however, is Kerewin’s. Loving the things she owns, her jewelry, her knife, her Tower, she cannot love people, for fear that they will become a part of her. After she sees Simon’s scarred body, Kerewin is torn between her sense of duty and her fear of involvement in the lives of others. Her first real step out of solitude comes when she asks Joe and Simon to go on a beach vacation with her. Although she has convinced herself that she wishes to observe them, in order to be certain about the child abuse, actually Kerewin has permitted her life and her emotions to be affected by others.
During the remainder of the novel, the three characters come to understand one another and themselves. Discovering that Joe was himself abused and felt himself abandoned, Kerewin realizes that Joe is not a monster. When she beats Joe, she realizes that she herself is capable of violence, and when he forgives her, she sees his capacity for love. Finally, when Kerewin runs away rather than help Joe remove a fish hook from Simon’s thumb, she must admit her own weaknesses.
In the final section of the novel, Kerewin breaks off her relationship with the two Gillayleys because, as she says, they are “sucking me dry, it feels like. Emotional vampires, slurping all the juice from my home.” As a result, both Simon and Joe explode, and Kerewin is forced to admit that she can no longer sequester herself in her Tower. In the epilogue to the novel, Kerewin, Joe, and Simon form a family and celebrate the union at a great party in their new home, attended by their friends, Joe’s family, and even Kerewin’s family, to whom she is now reconciled.
(The entire section is 3,586 words.)