Elizabeth Webby (essay date March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 shockingly plain, yet almost bottomless in its emotional depth. A reclusive Maori woman (a somewhat autobiographical figure), bitter at the world yet ironically made wealthy by a lottery, has her steely exterior pierced by an orphaned, psychologically-disturbed boy who, though of normal intelligence, refuses to speak for some mysterious reason in his past. The boy's foster father, a rough-hewn Maori widower, is alternately protective and physically abusive of the boy. These three characters, and the way their love for each other develops, describe the limits of the story; but the author's concern for the characters' emotional life, as shown through the use of multiple point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness, is so obsessive in its purity that the reader doesn't miss the lack of a depiction of a real social context in this admittedly long (440 pages) novel. Where Hulme is less successful is in her attempt to use the story as a metaphor for the current fate of New Zealand and the Maori people. Maori myth, culture, and language are constant themes in The Bone People, but Hulme is done in by her success; her tale is so universal in its beauty that it passes by the uniqueness of New Zealand on its way to higher literary heights.

Robert Ross (review date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

In Te Kaihau/The Windeater, as in the novel, Hulme sidesteps the pitfalls of sensationalism and constructs instead a compelling image of humankind's state, first on the level of the Maoris in New Zealand, then on a universal scale. “While My Guitar Gently Sings,” for example, re-creates a Maori family and follows its dissolution, the narrator mourning her mother's death while sitting amid the aftermath of a drunken brawl. She cries too over the loss of the old ways and the vacuum created. Attempts at recovery fail, however, as illustrated in another of the stories, “He Tauware Kawa, He Kawa Tauware,” which records a pathetic attempt to rediscover and revive Maori tradition.

The vision bleak, the landscape dark and lonely, the characters maimed both physically and spiritually—such is the world Hulme brings into being through a style imbued with those same qualities. At times, unfortunately, the writing calls attention to itself, the eclectic and imitative nature, the penchant for obscurity, and the self-conscious experimentation marring the narrator's intention. When the vision and the language blend, however—and they most often do—the stories open to view the human condition, naked, brutal, alone.

Whether written before or after The Bone People, the fiction collected in Te Kaihau/The Windeater displays a greater sense of discipline, with most of the excesses that scarred the novel trimmed away. Much more will be expected from so inventive a prophet, disguising herself as a maker of fiction.

Susan Ash (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)