Because The Bone People is narrated through the consciousnesses of the three major characters, the reader comes to be far clearer about their motivations than he may be about the events which they recall in fragmentary fashion. The central character, Kerewin Holmes, perceives herself as someone who knows what she wants: solitude, independence, and celibacy. Her Tower is a fortress. The things she possesses are important; people are not. It is significant that she could cut off relations with her family but had to bear away an ancestral coffee mill, to which she now talks. Her first response to Simon is distaste; her first impulse, to send him back into the rain from which he came. Clearly, however, she does not know herself as well as she thought. When she discovers that he has a splinter in his foot, she must help him, and from that time onward, first Simon’s helplessness and insistent love and then Joe’s hurt make it impossible for her to be the person she had thought herself to be.
Simon’s own fearful nature and delinquent reactions are related not only to his terrifying, drugged infancy but also to Joe’s present alternation of affection and abuse, which have convinced Simon that he himself is evil. When he attacks Joe during the final beating, which almost costs Simon his life, the boy is asserting his own refusal to accept the responsibility for Joe’s actions and thus stating a new independence.
The most complex character in The Bone People is probably Joe, the child abuser, who reveals himself to Kerewin much more fully than she ever reveals herself to him. Although the revolting nature of his actions would seem to make him a totally unsympathetic character, whatever his own abused and abandoned childhood may have been and however deeply the loss of his wife and child may have hurt him, it is clear that Joe does give Simon love. Unfortunately, Simon’s own behavior gives Joe an excuse to beat him, in the guise of disciplining him. Fearful of his own sexual feelings, Joe is more likely to strike the child than to stroke him. Yet like the most sympathetic parent, Joe worries about Simon’s nightmares, devotes sleepless nights to comforting him, and responds with sensitivity to the unexpected terrors which evidently arise from Simon’s unknown past experience. Joe’s mistreatment of Simon is not the sadistic display of power which is so often the motivation of a child abuser. Joe castigates himself both for his actions and for his whole failed life; what, he asks, can he give either Kerewin or Simon? Out of his own dislike of himself comes his violence toward Simon, his other self. It is ironic that only when Kerewin, the confident, finds that she, too, can err cruelly, only when Joe, the self-despising, finds that he can give something to others are the two brought together with Simon, who can forgive them both.
Kerewin Holmes, the protagonist, a painter. A large-boned woman in her thirties who likes to adorn herself with rings, she lives alone in a tower-house that she built for herself. In her desire to avoid human contact, she has cut herself off even from her own family. She is kind to Simon, however, when he appears in her Tower, and she later comes to love both him and Joe, his foster father. Through her involvement with them, she learns her own need for others. At the end of the novel, she marries Joe and establishes a real home for Simon.
Joseph (Joe) Kakaukawa Gillayley
Joseph (Joe) Kakaukawa Gillayley (kah-kow-KAH-wa gihl-LAY-lee), a part-Maori factory worker. A dark-skinned, broad-shouldered man in his thirties, he has a deep, musical voice and an appealing smile. Since the death of his wife, Hana, Joe has indulged in alcohol and in brutality, regularly beating his foster son, even though he loves the boy. During the course of the novel, Joe exorcises his demons and commits himself to Maori traditions, as well as to making a new family with Kerewin and Simon.
Simon P. Gillayley
(The entire section is 2,368 words.)