Keri Hulme Essay - Critical Essays

Hulme, Keri


Keri Hulme 1947-

New Zealand novelist, poet, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hulme's career through 1993. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 39.

Hulme came to international fame in 1984 when her novel The Bone People (1983) won the New Zealand Book of the Year Award, the Mobil Corporation Pegasus Award, and the 1985 Booker McConnell Prize. Set in Hulme's native New Zealand, the novel explores gender, ethnicity, and estrangement, particularly between native Maori beliefs and Western culture. Hulme, who is one-eighth Maori, explores similar themes in her short story collection Te Kaihau/The Windeater (1986) and her poetry collections The Silences Between (1982) and Strands (1991).

Biographical Information

Hulme was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 9 March 1947. Her maternal grandfather was Maori, the Polynesian racial group indigenous to New Zealand. Hulme credits the time she spent with her Maori relatives, which she recalls fondly, with her close identification with the Maori ethnicity as an adult. The importance of family, the primacy of traditional Maori teachings, and the need to find balance are common themes in her poetry, short stories, and novel and can be traced to her youthful experiences in a close-knit family. When she was eighteen Hulme wrote a story about the three characters whom she resurrected over a decade later, creating the four hundred plus page manuscript The Bone People in the late 1970s. She attended Canterbury University, Christchurch, and pursued various occupations while concurrently writing. Although she successfully published her first collection of poetry in 1982, she was unable to find a publisher for her novel because of the unusual subject matter and her unwillingness to alter or edit the manuscript. A New Zealand feminist collective, Spiral, provided the funding for four thousand copies of The Bone People to be published. The novel achieved popular success in New Zealand before winning audiences in the United States and England. In 1986 she published her first collection of short stories, many of which expound upon the themes raised in The Bone People. Hulme lives in isolation in rural New Zealand and continues to write.

Major Works

Similar themes recur in Hulme's work despite the fact that she has published in many genres. Her poetry, short stories, novel, and novella all center on issues of Maori culture and identity, the importance of family, and the conflict between identities. Hulme is known for merging genres; her poetry is prose-like while her novel and stories feature poem excerpts. In fact, critics called her novel The Bone People a prose-poem. She infuses her writing with Maori words and her English prose is influenced by Maori cadence and structure. In addition, the theme of violence features in her work prominently, most notably in The Bone People and in short stories such as “While My Guitar Gently Sings” and “Hooks and Feelers.” In her poetry and fiction Hulme does not advocate feminist ideology as much as she features strong women's voices. Her novel The Bone People centers around such a voice, the character Kerewin Holmes, based loosely upon Hulme. Holmes is a one-eighth Maori artist living in a spiral house that she built for herself in an isolated region of New Zealand. A gender neutral character, Holmes befriends Goe Gillaylay, a Maori laborer, and his ward Simon, a mute boy of unknown parentage. Each character must overcome obstacles to restore harmony in their lives before they can unite as an unusual, but functional, family.

Critical Reception

When Hulme published The Bone People she was met by almost universal praise in New Zealand. Although she had earned attention for her poetry collection and short stories printed in periodicals, she had not established herself as a major writer until the publication of her novel. Reviewers praise Hulme for her imaginative and powerful style that blends reality and myth in a simple, yet serious, narrative; her fine ear for New Zealand vernacular and dialogue; and her unusual yet compelling structure. Elizabeth Ward describes the novel as “a work of immense literary and intellectual ambition, that rare thing, a novel of ideas which is also dramatically very strong.” However, some critics, such as C. K. Stead and Michiko Kakutani, took issue with Hulme for refusing to edit The Bone People. They argue that she is too verbose, unfocused, and self-indulgent. Other critics bemoan the lack of development in the characters Joe and Simon. The issues of child-abuse and questions about the authenticity of Hulme's description of the Maori bother other reviewers. Stead foreshadows critics of Hulme's short story collection Te Kaihau/The Windeater, published in1986, by criticizing the violence and bitterness in her writing. Many critics were silent or gave negative reviews of her short stories. However, both Tim Armstrong and Robert Ross argue that in these stories Hulme addresses many of the weaknesses found in her novel. Susan Ash writes, “I believe that Hulme's ambiguous attitude to individualism and to violence accounts for both the critical dissent regarding The Bone People and the relative silence regarding Te Kaihau.” Hulme has continued to gain attention as a New Zealand poet; reviewers cite Strands as an example of work emerging from an up-and-coming voice of New Zealand.

Principal Works

The Silences Between: Moeraki Conversations (poetry) 1982

The Bone People (novel) 1984

Lost Possessions (novella) 1985

Te Kaihau/The Windeater (short stories) 1986

Strands (poetry) 1991


Elizabeth Webby (essay date March 1985)

SOURCE: “Spiralling to Success,” in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 14-23.

[Webby is an associate professor at Sydney University. In the following essay, she traces the themes in Hulme's writing, focusing in particular on Hulme's novel The Bone People.]

Aue, te aroha me te mamae

The title of one of Keri Hulme's poems seemed an appropriate epigraph for this introductory account of her work. ‘Ah, the love and the pain’ is one's immediate response to her poems, stories and, in particular, her major novel, The Bone People. Pain and love are also abundant in the story of how the novel eventually came to be published.

I first read Keri Hulme's work in 1982 when Heinemann sent me a copy of an excellent new anthology of Maori writing, Into the World of Light, edited by Witi Ihimaera and D. S. Long. This confirmed what I had suspected from reading stories by Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Rowley Habib in other anthologies. In a country famous for its short fiction, the best was now coming from Maori writers. I was particularly impressed by stories by two writers new to me: Bruce Stewart and Keri Hulme. Since it was then impossible to buy copies of New Zealand books in Australia, I wrote to a friend in Auckland asking if any titles by them were available. In return I received Hulme's first collection of poems, The Silences Between (Moeraki Conversations), recently published by Auckland University Press, and the news that her novel, The Bone People, was having trouble finding a publisher because of its length and unconventionality. A small but striking extract from this work had appeared in Into The World of Light. I was very keen to read more of it.

About a year later I was excited to hear that Keri Hulme had been invited to the 1984 Adelaide Festival. As always, teaching commitments kept me in Sydney, where I attentively scanned the media for news of her. 1984 was one of those rare years when there were no international dropouts from Writers' Week; an unknown New Zealander attracted little attention. There was a brief report of consternation in the audience when she began her talk in Maori and then the news that Keri Hulme would give one reading in Sydney before returning home. Disappointingly few turned up to hear her; she had a heavy cold as a legacy of Adelaide; the good news was that The Bone People had at last been published by Spiral.

A few weeks later I had a ring from Marian Evans, one of the three women who had produced the novel. From her, and from the copy of The Bone People she brought me, I learnt of the novel's long gestation, its rejection by commercial publishers, the support given by Hulme's family, friends and, finally and successfully, the Spiral Collective. In her preface, ‘Standards in a non-standard Book’, Hulme tells how the work, begun as a short story, gradually warped into a novel:

The characters wouldn't go away. They took 12 years to reach this shape. To me, it's a finished shape, so finished that I don't want to have anything to do with any alteration of it. Which is why I was going to embalm the whole thing in a block of perspex when the first three publishers turned it down on the grounds, among others, that it was too large, to unwieldy, too different when compared with the normal shape of novel.

Enter, to sound of trumpets and cowrieshell rattles, the Spiral Collective.

Spiral, actually not one but a series of non-profitmaking feminist publishing collectives, had begun in 1976 when a Christchurch group produced the first issue of Spiral, a magazine for women's art, writing and criticism. Marian Evans was one of the Wellington collective producing Spiral 5. She had met Keri Hulme at the opening of Wellington's Women's Gallery in 1980 and read the manuscript of The Bone People the following year. Deeply moved by it, she made a further fruitless search for a publisher. Again the book's length and, one suspects, its feminism as well as its Maoriness, went against it. So a Spiral Collective was formed—Marian, Miriama Evans, Irihapeti Ramsden and another search, for funds, began. Ironically, one of the first groups approached, the Advisory Committee on Women, thought the novel did not give a positive enough image of women, especially Maori women, and turned it down. But, as one sees from the acknowledgments at the front of the novel, help did come from some Maori organisations, from women writers, both Maori and Pakeha, from a Catholic Church Commission and from the New Zealand Literary Fund. The latter offered two thousand dollars, higher than any previous subsidy for a novel, but the novel had first to be in print. The collective now searched for the cheapest quotes on typesetting, printing and binding. Typesetting was done by the Victoria University Students Association; proofreading and pasting-up by the members of the collective, often at night when their other commitments were over. While obvious misprints are surprisingly rare, the book that resulted has an engaging or annoying, depending on one's perspective, lack of uniformity. Inking and margins are uneven; page numbers go in and out of italics; occasionally the type goes up or down a point for a few pages. I was reminded of early issues of the Sydney Gazette and it's likely that first editions of The Bone People will become collector's pieces. (My two copies also have variant bindings.) But the eager buyers of the four thousand copies printed were clearly not all bibliomaniacs. The novel was very favourably reviewed and rapidly sold out. It has since won the three thousand dollar New Zealand Book Award for fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature. Hodder and Stoughton have joined with Spiral to produce a reset second edition; Louisiana State University Press are to be the American publishers.

If the story that I've just told was fiction, it would probably be dismissed as too romantic, too Hollywoody. The happy coincidences between the novel's themes and structure and its eventual publishers might seem beyond even Hollywood. Three women, Maori and Pakeha, publish a novel which argues that biculturalism is fundamental to the future of New Zealand. The novel, rejected by monocultural publishers, is a huge success. For the reasons outlined above, the women call themselves Spiral. And, as Peter Simpson noted in an excellent review of The Bone People in the Australian Book Review for August 1984, ‘the spiral form is central to the novel's meaning and design; it is in effect the code of the work informing every aspect from innumerable local details to the overall structure’.

Though The Bone People has a fairly simple plot—three characters meet, separate and are reunited—its structure is, indeed, that of the double spiral, where beginning and ending are in perpetual interchange. The first section, entitled ‘The End at the Beginning’, offers brief glimpses of three unnamed characters, two male, one female, before concluding

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 growling and great.

Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.

Next come three brief flashback sections, one for each of the still unnamed central characters. The first two, beginning ‘In the beginning’, and focusing on the male characters, are filled with images of terror and shipwreck, death and despair. The third opens with a marked change of tone:

She had debated, in the frivolity of the beginning, whether to build a hole or a tower; a hole, because she was fond of hobbits, or a tower—well, a tower for many reasons, but chiefly because she liked spiral stairways.

As time went on, and she thought over the pros and cons of each, the idea of a tower became increasingly exciting; a star-gazing platform on top; a quiet library, book-lined, with a ring of swords on the nether wall; a bedroom, mediaeval style, with massive roof-beams and a plain hewn bed; there'd be a living room with a huge fireplace, and rows of spicejars on one wall, and underneath, on the ground level, an entrance hall hung with tapestries, and the beginnings of the spiral stairway, handrails dolphin-headed, saluting the air.

There'd be a cellar, naturally, well stocked with wines, homebrewed and imported vintage; lined with Chinese ginger jars, and wooden boxes of dates. Barrels round the walls, and shadowed chests in corners.

All through the summer sun she laboured, alone with the...

(The entire section is 3747 words.)

Walter M. Miller, Jr. (review date 28 March 1986)

SOURCE: “Roots and Sinew,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXIII, No. 6, 28 March 28, 1986, pp. 186-88.

[In the following review, Miller praises The Bone People.]

Once upon a time a female Maori tobacco field worker who owned a portable typewriter started writing a story about a magic child washed up on a New Zealand beach. The tobacco field worker spent twelve years writing the story in her spare time. Now that she is done with it, she takes it to three major publishers down under. They all hate it. So she bundles up the manuscript, mixes a bucket of quick-setting resin, and prepares to embed twelve years of work in a commemorative block of solid plastic, when—ta-ra!...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Bruce King (review date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: “Fiction from the World's Edge,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 94, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. xlv-xlvii.

[In the following review of The Bone People, King examines the feminist aspects of the novel, praising Hulme for her skill and innovations.]

That Keri Hulme's only previous book is a good volume of poems published in New Zealand may explain why the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement complained about the nomination of The Bone People for the Booker Prize—or why the Sunday Times claimed that the nomination was reward enough. The award of England's prestigious literary prize is only the latest episode in the unusual history of...

(The entire section is 978 words.)

Robert L. Ross (review date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: A review of The Bone People, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring, 1986, p. 363.

[In the following review, Ross, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, argues that The Bone Peopleis too long and overwritten, but finds that it has merits despite its weaknesses.]

Much honored by literary prizes, The Bone People supposedly challenges the conventions that govern the novel. Keri Hulme in a preface announces to prospective readers that her book, like exotic food, will offer satisfaction once such taste develops. Modern literature, however, has produced any number of pretentious, tedious, overwritten, and undisciplined works...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1986)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1986)

SOURCE: A review of The Bone People, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1986, p. 91.

[In the following review, the critic contends that aspects of The Bone People's unique New Zealand cultural setting are sacrificed for a more universal tale.]

This startling first novel [The Bone People] by a 38-year-old Maori woman from New Zealand has already won the New Zealand Book Award, England's Booker Prize for fiction, and Mobil Corporation's Pegasus Prize for foreign literature—plus extravagant praise from the critics. Hulme's story is simple, perhaps...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

Robert Ross (review date Summer 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Te Kaihau/The Windeater, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 3, Summer, 1987, p. 494.

[In the following review, Ross claims that Hulme has created honest, evocative images of the human condition in Te Kaihau/The Windeater and predicts important writing from her in the future.]

That the author of the much-praised novel The Bone People should make violence, despair, maiming, drunkenness, and such other human weakness and misfortune subjects for a volume of short stories should not be surprising. After all, The Bone People must have been the first international best seller to chronicle child-beating.


(The entire section is 340 words.)

Susan Ash (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Bone People after Te Kaihau,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1989, pp. 123-35.

[In the essay below, Ash reinterprets The Bone People after reading Hulme's short story collection Te Kaihau, arguing that neither work emerges favorably.]

Does a Booker Prize ensure wide and critical attention for the winner's subsequent publication? Expecting to satisfy a “pent-up demand,” retailers in New Zealand “ordered up heavily” when 1985 recipient Keri Hulme smartly released a volume of short fiction, Te Kaihau/The Windeater, in 1986. However, as one area book manager has said, her company “took a...

(The entire section is 6286 words.)

Thomas E. Benediktsson (essay date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: “The Reawakening of the Gods: Realism and the Supernatural in Silko and Hulme,” in Critique, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 121-31.

[In the essay below, Benediktsson compares the treatment of realism and indigenous myth in Leslie Silko's Ceremony and Hulme's The Bone People.]

Realism in the contemporary novel depends on two contradictory claims. The first one is that the narrative is not literally true. The familiar statement in the frontispiece that “the characters and incidents portrayed herein are entirely imaginary and bear no resemblance to real persons, living or dead” is not only a protection against lawsuit but also a...

(The entire section is 4862 words.)

Giovanna Covi (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Keri Hulme's The Bone People: A Critique of Gender,” in Imagination and the Creative Impulse in the New Literatures in English, edited by M.-T. Bindella and G. V. Davis, Rodopi, 1993, pp. 219-31.

[Covi is a PhD. candidate at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In the following essay, she discusses Hulme's unconventional treatment of gender and ethnicity in The Bone People.]

When Keri Hulme's first novel, The Bone People, was finally published in 1984, it quickly attracted both passionate fans and hostile detractors. This polarized response focused almost entirely on extra-textual considerations.

The novel...

(The entire section is 6180 words.)

Bernard Gadd (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Strands, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, p. 452.

[In the following review, Gadd praises the poems in Strands.]

Keri Hulme is internationally better known for her Booker Prize-winning novel The Bone People (1983) and for her short stories than for her poetry. Strands, a collection of work of the past decade, seems intended to present her also as a poet worth noting—and it succeeds.

The sustained major work in the volume is “Fishing the Olearia Tree,” followed by a group of substantial poems, “Against the Small Evil Voices.” (The title “Deity Considered as Mother Death”...

(The entire section is 562 words.)