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...

(The entire section is 1953 words.)