The Bone People

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The Bone People, winner of the 1984 Pegasus Prize for foreign fiction, the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for fiction, and Great Britain’s 1985 Booker Prize, is a first novel by an unconventional part-Maori writer. Perhaps as a result of its unusual subject matter and structure, it was rejected by numerous publishers over a period of years, at last to be brought out by a trio of women, who formed a collective to publish it and other worthwhile works.

After this first, cheaply printed small-press edition sold out, mainstream British publishers became interested, and the novel was republished in 1985 by Hodder and Stoughton. In 1984, the book won Mobil’s Pegasus Prize, which was established to bring works from other cultures to the attention of the English-reading public. Pegasus Prize books are issued by Louisiana State University, which published The Bone People in 1985.

Keri Hulme won the Pegasus Prize as a Maori writer—that is, as a representative of the New Zealand Polynesian culture—although her ancestry is only one-eighth Maori. Certainly the Maori background of The Bone People is important. Like Hulme, the novel’s protagonist, painter Kerewin Holmes, is only part Maori, but she often speaks and thinks in Maori phrases and sentences, which are translated in the author’s notes. Yet if those words are part of her, more important are Maori ways of thinking. For example, the fact that she has broken off with her family certainly troubles her, particularly in that it violates the Maori sense of community. When she vacations by the sea, she comments, “We own five of these baches, all of us owning them, not anyone separately.” When she is asked whether her family will turn up, she replies that she has notified them that she will be there until mid-June. “That’ll keep them away,” she explains.

What Kerewin has lost, what the castaway child of unknown parentage has lost, Joseph N. Gillayley still has. Much as Joe’s relatives disapprove of his beating Simon P. Gillayley, his foster son, they share his life and his responsibilities. When Joe gets drunk, the Tainuis try to care for Simon. In his first encounter with Kerewin, the mute child writes of “MARAMA” that “SHE PETS ME AND CRY FOR JOE SP.” Throughout the book, it is clear that all of Joe’s relatives are concerned about him as well as about Simon. As one cousin’s wife comments, Simon “used to come round with terrible weals on him.And we couldn’t do anything, because you feel sorry for Joe being alone and allbut that poor kid!” It is significant that the final scene in the book brings together not only the three principal characters but also the Tainui relatives of Joe and the now-reconciled relatives of Kerewin. The community of kindred seems in a sense to bless the new community of Joe, Kerewin, and Simon.

Another important element in this Maori novel is the stress upon the spiritual aspect of life, which seems to be vanishing among the Pakeha (New Zealanders of European background). Pakeha materialism is evident in the destruction of the environment. On the drive to Kerewin’s seaside vacation, she notes that the beautiful groves of kahikatea trees, which take several hundred years to mature, have been chopped down and replaced by fast-growing pines, a quick money crop. Yet more than contact with nature has been lost. Man is now isolated from the spirits that surround him, from the old people, because he is no longer conscious of their existence. Fortunately, Joe and Kerewin remain sensitive to the emanations from certain places, certain objects. The despair that very nearly drives Joe to suicide is vanquished only after he is physically and spiritually healed by a mysterious old man, the keeper of a relic, who transmits his responsibility to Joe and, with it, a sense of continuity with the Maori past.

Perhaps it was less the Maori context that confused the early readers of The Bone People than the mixture of voices and techniques. On the simplest level, the novel is a mystery story. Reclusive Kerewin Holmes, who has built a tower for her residence, looks up one day to see a child standing in her slit window. After she gets him down from his dangerous perch, she finds that he is a mute, the foster child of Joe, who rescued him after a shipwreck of which he was the sole survivor. As the story proceeds, clues to the mystery of Simon’s past come in his memories, in his fears perceived by Kerewin, in a rosary and a ring to which he is attached, and in information gathered by her. The question of Simon’s parentage preoccupies Kerewin, and it is particularly important because without knowing what had happened to him as a small child, she cannot deal with the peculiar responses that anger Joe and repel...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Bone People explores the complexities of human relationships by weaving an intricate, painful web between three self-destructive characters. Each is almost ruined by a tragic flaw but ultimately saved by forgiving personal differences and reuniting to form a multicultural family. Their individual stories, fragmented into dreams, memories, songs, dialogue, and snatches of interior monologue, spiral around each other interdependently. The text, which sometimes reads like a prose poem, is further enhanced by rhythmic Maori phrases, most of which Keri Hulme translates in an index. Together, the four parts of the book form a patchwork: Each part contains three chapters that are divided into numbered segments, and the whole is framed by a prologue and epilogue. As with a difficult piece of music, its secrets are not easily revealed.

The story opens on an isolated stretch of South Island coast where Kerewin Holmes lives. Returning from spearfishing, she finds young Simon Gillayley cowering in her library window with a thorn in his heel. She reluctantly provides first aid, feeds the child dinner, and lets him spend the night. He is the first person to enter her private sanctuary; Joe Gillayley is the second. She tries to be rid of them, but their companionship stirs something within her, and she invites them back for games of chess and elaborate teas.

Simon is forthright about his affection for Kerewin. A regular truant, he reappears at...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The publication of The Bone People coincided with a Maori nationalist movement in New Zealand that eventually generated parliamentary reforms. Like the members of all colonized societies, New Zealanders are a mix of several cultures and continue to struggle over issues of identity, tradition, and power. Though writings preceding Hulme’s novel addressed postcolonial issues, Hulme’s was the first to receive worldwide attention, thus introducing non-New Zealanders to the country’s situation.

Writing the book about and for New Zealanders, Hulme was surprised when it received much international attention. In 1984, The Bone People received the Mobil Pegasus Award for Maori Writers, the New Zealand Book of the Year Award for fiction, and in 1985, the Booker-McConnell Prize. Before the publication of Hulme’s novel, the sale of ten thousand copies of a book by a New Zealand author classified it a best-seller; hers had sold nearly one hundred thousand copies by 1987. The book continues to attract the attention of literary critics, who are fascinated with its linguistic intricacies, its disturbing imagery, and its sociopolitical implications.

Hulme writes in her preface to the first edition that The Bone People took twelve years to write, evolving from her first short story, “Simon Peter’s Shell.” Several publishers turned it down because it was “too large, too unwieldy, too different when compared with the normal shape of a novel” and because Hulme refused to edit away its unconventional qualities. The book was finally brought out by Spiral Collective Number Five, a group of three feminists who gathered specifically to publish the novels of three New Zealand women whose work had otherwise been disregarded. The success of this publishing story is that Hulme’s work remains virtually unchanged from the version that she considered complete. Whereas texts are generally edited to ensure uniformity and marketability standards, the Spiral Collective respected Hulme’s artistic idiosyncrasies. The result is a text that challenges rules established by writers and publishers with traditional ideologies; it is a text that celebrates difference.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

New Zealand Maori History and Culture

New Zealand was inhabited by Polynesian people, who arrived by boat probably from...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Shifts in Setting and Voice

In The Bone People, Hulme employs sudden shifts in setting without explanation and...

(The entire section is 771 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1980s: Research conducted at the University of Otago, New Zealand, suggests that four out of five children receive corporal...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Watch the DVD Whale Rider (2003) and mark the places where Maori traditions are portrayed. Look for an example of hongi, or...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Once Were Warriors, published in 1990, is Alan Duff's reflections, in fictionalized form, on urbanized Maori people and the...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Brown, Rebecca, "First-Rank Debut—Novel from New Zealand Masterfully Captures Spirit of Country's Native...

(The entire section is 303 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Benediktsson, Thomas E. “The Reawakening of the Gods: Realism and the Supernatural in Silko and Hulme.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33 (Winter, 1992): 121-131. Suggests that the novel’s mix of supernatural and realistic elements undermines and transforms empirical literary ideologies, this being the goal of much postcolonial fiction. Provides an informed interpretation of Hulme’s use of Maori myth and the text’s three main characters.

Booklist. LXXXII, October 15, 1985, p. 312.

Fee, Margery. “Keri Hulme.” In International Literature in English: Essays on the Major...

(The entire section is 409 words.)