Elizabeth Webby (essay date March 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3747

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...

(This entire section contains 3747 words.)

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not one but a series of non-profitmaking feminist publishing collectives, had begun in 1976 when a Christchurch group produced the first issue ofSpiral, 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 paid, bemused, professional help. The dust obscured and flayed, thirst parched, and tempers frayed, but the Tower grew. A concrete skeleton, wooden ribs and girdle, skin of stone, grey and slateblue and heavy honey-coloured. Until late one February it stood gaunt and strange and embattled, built on an almost island in the shallows of an inlet, tall in Taiaroa.

This woman, artist, connoisseur, builder, is obviously anything but the traditional damsel in distress, locked in a tower by the sea. Yet, at the end of this section, the tone darkens. She is, after all, imprisoned. Having built the ideal artist's retreat, she finds herself no longer able to create.

The narrative proper opens in mid-sentence, in a pub. As the woman, now finally named as Kerewin Holmes, sits drinking alone, her thoughts are counterpointed with the pub conversation:

Somebody's in the middle of a rambling drunken anecdote. A Maori, thickset, a working bloke with steel-toed boots, and black hair down to his shoulders. He's got his fingers stuck in his belt, and the heavy brass buckle of it glints and twinkles as he teeters back and forwards.

‘… and then fucking hell would you believe he takes the candle …’
I'd believe the poor effing fella's short of words. Or thought.
Or maybe just intellectual energy.
The word is used monotonously, a sad counterbalance for every phrase.

This passage shows how surely Hulme handles her narrative, weaving together inner and outer events, in a seemingly effortless flow of realistic dialogue, interior monologue, and just the right amount of detailed description.

As we will shortly learn, the drunken Maori is Joe Gillayley, the male figure of the central trio, who has much more in common with Kerewin than appears at first sight. Like her, he has become trapped in a false role, self-adopted but essentially the creation of others. Hers is the Romantic ideal of the artist as a person apart; his the Pakeha view of the typical Maori: ‘made to work on the chain, or be a factory hand, not try for high places.’ Yet he is neither inarticulate nor unintelligent, has spent two years as a seminarian and trained as a teacher. If this were a conventional novel one might expect a variation of the ever-popular sexual comedy/romance: tough male and sophisticated female, initially antagonistic but irresistibly attracted to each other. But, though in many ways a romance and, given its happy ending/beginning, a comedy, The Bone People, perhaps uniquely among 470 page contemporary novels, has not a single sex scene. If it had, it may not have suffered so many rejections.

Kerewin and Joe are brought together by the third character, Joe's foster son, Simon. In another literary echo, Kerewin is made aware of Simon's intrusion on her solitude via discovering his sandal in the dust. Her meeting with its owner is initially as unpromising as her first sight of Joe. Simon is a weird little boy of seven, who cannot speak. ‘She doesn't like looking at the child. One of the maimed, the contaminating’. As with Joe, Kerewin's first reaction to Simon is the typical one. People avoid him, assuming he is an idiot. In fact, he is highly intelligent and has many other special abilities. His false role is very much one imposed from outside.

Besides its brief opening sections, The Bone People has four parts, with three chapters in each, and an epilogue. It would be simplistic to equate these four parts with the four seasons, yet there are certain links. In Part I the relationship between Kerewin, Joe and Simon is gradually built up; in Part II Kerewin takes the others to Moerangi, her ‘real home’, for a holiday; the relationship breaks up, with great violence and suffering, in Part III. In Part IV, each character is given a separate chapter as, in different parts of the country, they each encounter death and undergo different forms of rebirth, in preparation for their reunion in the Epilogue to form ‘something perilous and new’.

Fairly early in The Bone People we are told, through Kerewin, that the double spiral is ‘an old symbol of rebirth, and the outward-inward nature of things’. Both these features are strongly reflected in the novel's structure and shifting narrative perspectives. The double spiral is also a traditional Maori symbol, and fundamental to the novel is the idea that change and renewal do not mean a total rejection of the past. The title derives from a pun on the Maori word ‘iwi’ which means both ‘bones’ and ‘people’. So ‘the bone people’ are both the ancestors—the old people—and also the beginning people—the three central characters. Both Joe and Kerewin initially feel cut off from their cultural heritage: ‘the Maoritanga has got lost in the way I live’. Kerewin has broken all ties with her family and almost, as the tower image suggests, with humanity generally. Joe's wife and baby son have died and he is becoming increasingly alienated from his other relatives because of his mistreatment of Simon. Both recover their Maoritanga during their suffering in Part IV. Joe becomes custodian of a mauri, a very special one that contains the vital spirit of the whole country. Kerewin rebuilds the marae at Moerangi and is reunited with her family.

As Witi Ihimaera and D. S. Long note in the introduction to Into the World of Light, the need to recover and preserve Maoritanga has been a strong theme in Maori literature and one of the reasons for the remarkable recent growth in Maori writing in English. Hulme goes one stage further in demonstrating that Maori and Pakeha cultural heritages not only must coexist but can, together, produce ‘something strange and growing and great’. The third member of The Bone People's trio, the child Simon, has no Maori blood. Thrown from the sea at the beginning of the novel, he also has no name or family; his only inheritance seems to be the terror which his conscious mind represses. Kerewin, well aware of the literary associations of her surname, attempts to recover Simon's past. Appropriately, the trail leads her to an ancient Irish family, whose crest is the phoenix. It is Simon, with his Celtic love of music and uncanny perceptiveness, who first realises that the three ‘only make sense together’ and who makes the greatest sacrifice to bring this about. The horror of Keri Hulme's portrait of the child as victim, of well-meaning even more than not so well-meaning adults, would be unbearable if she had not created in Simon such a tough little nut of a character.

It is possible to read The Bone People allegorically, with Kerewin, Joe and Simon respectively representing the mind, body and spirit which, according to the doctrines of Aikido, once studied by Kerewin in Japan, must be unified if humankind is ever to achieve perfection. But these characters are far from being bloodless abstractions. As the similarity in names suggests, Kerewin Holmes is something of a self-portrait, though a very unflattering one. Yet the two male characters are portrayed with equal understanding and sympathy; the reader becomes totally involved with all three of them. Despite its literary allusions and host of abstruse lore, The Bone People offers much more than the cerebral game-playing of much recent fiction—it engages the heart and spirit as well as the mind. While truly deserving the title ‘novel’, its strong narrative drive and mixing of the fantastic with the all too grimly real has something in common with the ‘magic realism’ of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. Unlike the male novelists, however, Hulme does not deal with national politics, wars and revolutions. Instead, she concentrates on the, no less bloody and violent, politics of everyday life: relations between the sexes, between races, between parent and child. Though her novel has particular relevance to New Zealanders, it is bound to make a strong and lasting impact on anyone who reads it.

Reading Keri Hulme's previously published works after The Bone People, one becomes aware of many links and continuing preoccupations. Her collection of poems, The Silences Between (Moeraki Conversations) includes one song which reappears in the novel and another which might well have, as it tells of Simon dancing. As in the novel, there is much subverting of conventions and breaking of boundaries, including those between literary genres. The collection can best be described as a discontinuous narrative or, if one wishes to be grander, a livre composé. As in some of Frank Moorhouse's collections and in Brennan's Poems 1913, different type faces are used to link and separate individual pieces. There are six ‘Moeraki Conversations’ set at the beach which, there named Moerangi, is the setting for Part II of The Bone People. Moeraki was also the place where one of the ancestral Maori canoes was wrecked, so the poems in these sections are particularly concerned with Maoritanga and interconnections between the past and the present, the natural, and human and the supernatural.

The five interspersed ‘Silences’ each has a different setting: the city, overseas, other places in New Zealand. Here the emphasis falls on isolation and alienation, the mamae rather than the aroha of life. One of the most moving and powerful of these sections describes a visit to Hawaii, to a poetry conference. It consists of a sequence of twenty-one brief poems, ‘Leaving My Bones Behind’, and a longer poem, ‘Spotlight’. ‘Spotlight’ is a very striking piece, intercutting scenes at a poetry reading with scenes of a pornographic floorshow in a Honolulu nightclub:

‘I think people are the only interesting 
people,’ says Kim-Lee, the Korean.
‘No people are interesting,’ says Nosun, the
They are poets in a conference of poets: I am 
a pair of stark eyes on the fringes.
‘This time this younga lady she gonna blow
 your mind!’
A flaming cannister-like torch, like a distress
flare or a small stick of napalm.
‘Shove it in’ yells some sick thick in the
crowd ‘shove it right in’
but with a huff of her trained vagina
she blows it right out.
‘O we can't compete with that,’ says Kim-Lee
‘Do we try?’ asks Nosun, grinning.

This brief extract can only hint at the impact of the whole poem, particularly when read as the conclusion of ‘Silence … overseas’, and within the context of the whole interrelated collection.

Into the World of Light includes some poems not collected in The Silences Between. Among them is my personal favourite, ‘He Hoho’, a marvellous celebration of

this hoha, this buzz and fright,
this wave and sweat and flood,
this life.

Again, it's a long poem and one which needs to be read in its entirety but, as celebrations of menstruation are still pretty rare, I can't resist quoting

It is cliché that once a month, the moon stalks through
my body,
rendering me frail and still more susceptible to brain spin;
it is truth that cramp and clot and tender breast beset—but then
it is the tide of potency, another chance to walk the crack
between worlds.

The anthology also includes a less characteristic piece, a protest song, ‘Whakatu’. The title roughly translates as ‘set speech’—this is a send-up of the Pakeha view of the Maori, the sort of stereotype Joe becomes trapped in The Bone People.1

Eh man!
They like us on the chains
we do a good killing job
and we look so happy
                                        Hei tama tu tama
                                        tamma go away
They like us in the factories
cleaning floors and shifting loads
                                        hei tama tu tama
they like us driving trucks and dozers
and working on the roads
                                        hei tama tu tama
Hey boy!
They like us in the pubs
we drink up large
and we look so happy
                                        Hei tama tu tama
                                        tama go away
E tama!
they like us
they like us
drinking & shouting & singing
when it's someone else's party
 or swinging plastic pois
in a piupiu from Woolworths
and thumping hell outa an old guitar
Because we look so happy
                                        Hei tama tu tama
                                        tama go away
                                        Aue, tama go away.

‘Hooks and Feelers’, the only story by Keri Hulme I've so far been able to read, though a collection is soon to appear from Victoria University Press, has a male narrator with some resemblances to Joe. There are further echoes in the other central characters, a woman artist and a maimed, unchildlike, boy. Here, however, they are a family—husband, wife, child—which is destroyed through accident and disease. This is a story of mamae rather than aroha, compelling and disturbing. Also a very accomplished one, opening ‘On the morning before it happened’ and gradually, through hints, nuances and recurring images, revealing the full horror of ‘it’. First published in 1976, ‘Hooks and Feelers’ has rapidly achieved classic status and has appeared in at least four anthologies. At present, it's the only work by Keri Hulme easily obtainable in Australia, in both New Zealand Writing Since 1945 (eds. Jackson and O'Sullivan, O.U.P.) and Some Other Country, New Zealand's Best Short Stories (eds. McLeod and Manhire, Unwin Paperbacks).

That Oxford, Allen and Unwin and also Penguin are now distributing some of their New Zealand titles in Australia is a hopeful sign that the Tasman literary gulf may be narrowing. I understand, however, that at least one major Australian publisher has turned down local rights for The Bone People. So it seems you'll have to wait until the novel takes the final turn on its spiral path to success. Then it, too, will reach us, via London and New York.


  1. After reading this article, Keri Hulme wrote ‘“Whakatu” is indeed a formal set speech. It is also “making a stand”, “being vehement”, and the name of a major North Island freezing works, and God knows which one was uppermost in my mind when I said it.’

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

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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! ta-ra!—three angels swing down from the skies on god-hoisting tackle. These lovely deae ex machina start a feminist collective which publishes the fieldhand's book.

And lo, it comes to pass that Keri Hulme wins the prize for Maori Literature and the Pegasus prize as well, the latter bringing with it publication in the United States. That's not the plot of The Bone People, that's the plot of how it came to exist. But there's not a happy ending yet. The happy ending is when all you who wish a taste of Maori fiction turn out to buy a copy of her book so that she will have a chance to write another one for us. Buy it now. Hollywood will never show it to you—it has no sex scenes, and the wrong kind of violence.

And yet it is a love story among three highly explosive characters, one of them the seminal magic child. The heroine is Kerewin, an alienated ex-artist; she has money, a bad conscience, an intact hymen at thirty-five, the hands and feet of an aikido fighter, and she weighs in at a chubby twelve stone. She smokes cigars, has built herself a phallic tower on the beach to live in, and half-heartedly tries to paint again. She has no interest in men or women. The child, the mute sea-waif Simon, appears in Kerewin's tower window one day after breaking and entering. Kerewin has no interest in children either, but the boy has a wounded heel and she can't throw him out in the rain. The other adult is Joe Gillaley, decently educated, but a Maori and a factory worker. Joe and his wife Hana had taken in the sea-foundling, but soon afterwards Hana and their baby died, leaving Joe with a beautiful, brutalized Simon to look after alone.

Simon can't talk, but he can understand, and even write. He can also steal, get drunk, start fights, throw tantrums, play hooky, break windows, accept money from the town pederast, and set off fire alarms. Joe gets drunk and batters him repeatedly, but they continue to love and cling to each other. Kerewin, against her will, becomes involved. Joe is grateful. She learns of the beatings and is sickened. When she catches him in the act, HAI!—she cuts him down with martially trained hands and feet; but as he lies bleeding in the sand (with Simon by his side crying for him), Kerewin is stricken with a spasm of abdominal pain which will become her nemesis and lead her as a willing, guilty follower toward the grave. For the moment, the pain passes. Joe forgives her the beating; they are temporarily reunited in friendship.

But the child's behavior arouses even Kerewin's wrath, and this time Joe's beating sends the boy to the hospital with severe and permanent injuries. Arrested, Joe loses custody and goes to jail. Kerewin, after a self-diagnosis of the swelling in her belly packs her bag with opiates and hallucinogens and goes away to die.

Everything seems hopeless, but—ta-ra! ta-ra!—out come the Bone People from the god-hoisting tackle. Believable gods they are, though, as believable to us, probably, as the gods that came to the rescue in Greek theater were to the audiences of that day. The Bone People belong to the landscape, to the life force (maoriora) of the Earth, to the culture (Maoritonga) and kinship of a people. They are those from whom Kerewin, Joe, and Simon, have been ultimately alienated, cut off from divine roots. They are the old ones, the relatives, the ancestors who Aeneas-like sailed their gods to New Zealand in the great outriggers long before the coming of the Pakeha (white settlers). Their power of binding and healing and uniting will pass to the new and future Bone People: Kerewin, Joe, Simon, the magic trinity (the author's word), reunited and healed by a mysterious fourth. They form a quaternity now, rooted in the Earth of kinship, and representing the future of a nation-people, part Maori, part Pakeha. These “gods” may be seen as the inner graces of the characters themselves, but these graces transcend any human individual; they are the secret inner power drawn from one's ancient roots in the Earth of origin and of redemption. “O the bones of the people, O the people of the bones.” (E nga iwi o nga iwi.)

Knowing the ending spoils nothing, Keri Hulme begins this timeless novel with the End, and ends it with the Beginning. In between is the dance, in which all of humanity is revealed in three of the dancers, and the universal Earth in a particular island on which they dance. My appraisal: A-plus. Why not buy two copies? When an author has as much promise as Keri Hulme, a first edition of a first novel kept in mint condition can be a good investment.

Bruce King (review date Spring 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978

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 this unusual novel. Rejected by New Zealand commercial and small presses, it was eventually published by Spiral, a feminist collective; and it became a local sensation, winning the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and, later, the Mobil Corporation Pegasus Prize for Literature, “to introduce American readers to distinguished works of fiction” from abroad. Penguin plans a paperback edition.

A strange powerful novel in subject, form, and style, The Bone People focuses intensely and obsessively on the relations among three characters. The woman has rejected her family and has withdrawn from society to become an artist, but, living alone in a tower she has built for herself on the sea-coast, she no longer creates. One-eighth Maori, she claims to be spiritually and culturally Maori rather than European, but she belongs to no community. Her self-enclosed world is breached by a mute, blue-eyed, blond-haired seven-year-old boy of unknown parentage, who is the only survivor from a wrecked boat and is cared for by the man who found him. The man, a pure-blooded Maori who has dropped out from a seminary and teachers' college, works in a factory and, since the death of his wife, lives alone except for the child. Probably a victim of polio at a time when vaccines were unknown, he was beaten by his mother to force him to walk, and he doles out savage punishment to the child, since he is unable to conceive of any other form of inducement or communication.

Although the perspective is mainly the woman's, Hulme continually shifts the narrative voice between the narrator and the three main characters and between what is said and felt, so that the text consists of a mosaic of short, clipped, economical paragraphs of interior monologue, dialogue, and description, in which oblique understatement controls intense feelings. Through dialogue and with little direct description she swiftly sets the scene, catching, for example, the overcrowded matesmanship of New Zealand's pubs—or noting the bare windy New Zealand beaches with their dangerous tides. A sentence or two establishes the dislike many New Zealanders have for Australians, the closeness to the surface of Maori-white racial tensions, and such feelings as isolation, aimless drift, and unfocused alienation. Hulme has an excellent ear for the flat dry characteristics of New Zealand speech, including the implicit aggression in the laconic, and the rich language of the novel ranges from Maori expressions, colloquialisms, personal coinages, and humorous curses to the highly poetic.

Organized around the structural motif of a double spiral, a Maori symbol of life as interwoven continuity and of rebirth, The Bone People begins with poems and short cryptic paragraphs alluding to the conclusion; besides the circularity of the end being implied at the beginning, the spiral symbol is found in the staircase in the woman's tower, in a strange sandcastle the child builds, in Maori greenstone carvings, in seashells and other natural objects, and in the house built at the end so that the three can live in “Commensalism.” The relations and oppositions between men and women, New Zealanders of Maori and European descent, individuals and communities, mothers and children, the artist and society, medical science and the soul, past and present are among the many pertinent if fashionable themes in the novel.

The Bone People is one of the more impressive works of fiction written from a distinctly feminist position: it reflects a change in New Zealand society, a shift from a provincial, colonial, imitation British culture, in which sports and male values dominated, to a post-sixties culture, open to new ideas, cosmopolitan, and with an increasingly prominent role for women and Maoris. The isolation of the woman, her unwillingness to be involved, her instinctual liking for the child and distrust of him as taking from her energies are the fictional representation of ideas, as are the ways in which the woman's actions quietly imitate Robinson Crusoe, James Bond, and other male heroes of fiction. Hulme attempts to revise the novel tradition to include a woman who invents, controls, fights, who is a connoisseur of fine wines and tobacco, and who stands aloof. Such values are, however, criticized when the woman learns she needs others, family, and tradition, although in new forms of sharing. The source of the novel's themes and narrative in feminism can also be seen in such techniques as the intense probing focus on the inner world of the characters as relations develop and change and in the contrasts delineated between what is felt and what is said. Hulme is excellent in the nuanced way she shows evolving feelings and the subtleties of relationships: in balancing the subjective with the exterior, she has moved the novel form closer to an extended narrative lyric poem in several voices.

The novel also involves the renewal of Maori culture: the bones of the title are those of the ancestors who must be regained as sources of life and creativity. The ending, with its mysterious intervention of a tribal elder and a strange healer, might be explained by the way novels by women often resolve conflict through transformation of character, by Maori myth, or by the magic realism currently found in Third World literature. This is an impressive novel that lends itself to endless critical discussion.

Robert L. Ross (review date Spring 1986)

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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 posing as forerunners of strikingly original forms. So, in truth, The Bone People fails to contain much that startles anew, only familiar excesses that too often hide the abundant talent lurking within. Hulme's writing at its self-conscious worst emerges as thoroughly unpleasant, but when natural and unforced, it is altogether brilliant.

For one thing, the book records vividly a side of life largely ignored in New Zealand literature. The courage and tenacity of early white settlers any number of novels has documented; and Janet Frame and Joy Cowley have denuded the smug descendants of those pioneers. Sylvia Ashton-Warner provided some insight into Maori culture, but only from a white perspective. Hulme, a Maori herself, chronicles the day-to-day life of her people, recording with apparent honesty and accuracy their frustrations, devotion and loyalty to family, distrust of those who govern them, their bouts of cruelty and inherent kindness, and their love of food and drink. In so doing, she establishes the fluidity which plagues those people whose traditions the Europeans' supposedly superior ways have eroded. Long a theme in African literature, for instance, this displacement has just begun to come to the forefront in many of the new literatures. Hulme has introduced the conflict dramatically into the New Zealand tradition.

This first novel, in spite of its excesses, shows abundant promise. The dialogue captures the rhythms of everyday speech, in part through effective use of Maori words and phrases. The descriptive passages do justice to the often cold and bleak but forever beautiful New Zealand landscape. The conflict and suspense depend not so much on a record of actual events but on the characters' emotional upheavals and reactions. Such strength throughout makes forgivable those passages that try the reader's patience. In writing her next novel, Hulme should remember that exotic food, when eaten too often, turns ordinary.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1986)

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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)

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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)

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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 big punt” with Te Kaihau and “just did a nose dive” (Parker 70), Te Kaihau has been a publishing non-event; the book has not sold well and no one has much to say about the stories. The fiction elicits only brief and oblique mention in Ian Wedde's review which focuses on the prefatory poetry.1 Was Wedde off on a linguistic tangent close to his own heart, or did he consciously avoid engaging with the actual fiction? Much of Te Kaihau was written contemporaneously with The Bone People; stylistically and thematically the two books have much in common. Why then has one book attracted wide acclaim while the second has received relatively little attention despite the propitious circumstances of its publication?

The tensions in The Bone People inspire diametrically opposed readings. One critic praises Hulme's skill in rendering the protagonist a “living, realistic woman” (Smith, “Breaking Ground” 49), while another argues conversely that Kerewin is “too omnicompetent to be believable in fiction” (Jones 203). Similarly, The Bone People divides readers on the symbolic as well as the realistic level. The novel succeeds as a model for post-colonial harmony because Kerewin's “sexual neutrality” suggests that “bonds need not be biological,” a point which relates “overtly to individuals” but could be seen as an “optimistic blueprint for future race relations” (Prentice 72). This same model fails, however, because the “last quarter of the novel” extends itself “too far,” and the “characters cannot stand up under the mythic burden placed on them” (Jones 204). If the model does not work for individuals, it cannot work for the community.

Judith Dale's reading may account for the critical opposition. She suggests that the novel's ideas and structures “work against each other” (414) and “unsettle” the “stability of one another” (414). Patterns which appear settled in one direction are “disturbed in another” (426). Hulme's “primary accomplishment” in devising Kerewin is the protagonist's “self-sufficiency and tough independence, united as they are with intelligence, competence, knowledge and insight.” Dale asserts that this image would be “lost” in the very notion of an idealized “people-family, tribe, tangata whenua” (415). The dissonance between the new, communal Kerewin offering the “gift” of her name while remaining independent, “the cold-forged lady” (460), is not resolved. The strength of individualism in the novel undermines the commensal resolution. Dale, it seems, prefers Kerewin alienated.

In my reading of the novel, the strength of Hulme's characterization does not subvert the vision of commensalism and the possibility of harmonious, post-colonial race relations. The Bone People is explicitly patterned by the quest motif; Kerewin works as a female hero who undertakes an archetypal quest journey which culminates with the return to society.2 A novel like Frame's Living in the Maniototo ends with the hero-artist pursuing a life free from “human entanglements.” The Bone People reverses the process. The hero-artist aspires for human isolation, denying her “connection with all living things.” However, she undergoes a literal and symbolic journey and acquires the strength to return to society with the gift of her new knowledge: the paramount importance of bridging human alienation and establishing community. I disagree that the ending, the vision of commensal co-existence, is “an act of will” rather than something emerging “naturally from the rest of the story” (Jones 204). Within the framework of the novel, the heroic quest is convincing.

C. K. Stead has written that there is “something black and negative deeply ingrained” in The Bone People's “imaginative fabric” (107). Reluctant to explain this “negative element” even to himself, Stead implies that Hulme feels an “imaginative complicity” with the novel's violence. Because I found the novel convincing, I was able to dismiss Stead's ominous conclusion. However, rereading the novel after reading Te Kaihau has unsettled my response. The novel's ending intends to reconcile tensions; Te Kaihau lays these tensions wide open. This is not necessarily a criticism. However, where the “negative element” is apparently resolved in The Bone People, the short fiction is unrelentingly “black and negative”. Viciousness is rarely mitigated with aroha in Te Kaihau. Reading the short fiction in one volume becomes a painful undertaking. This article, then, mirrors the process of my reading Keri Hulme and reflects two positions: first, reading the novel on its own terms and secondly, reconsidering my response in light of the short fiction. Aware that the structures of my own argument unsettle each other, I discuss the success of the individual's quest for commensalism and its positive implications for the post-colonial society in The Bone People, only to argue subsequently that Te Kaihau shows a fundamental lack of authorial belief in those very models. 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.

The Bone People, like Living in the Maniototo, considers the artist's “place to be.” At first glance Kerewin Holmes appears to have secured for herself the physical requirements for the female artist: she has a reliable income independent from her art and a “room” of her own. Kerewin has achieved the circumstance which Mavis possesses in Living in the Maniototo: the complete absence of oppressive human relationships with family, friends, or lovers. But, like Anna Wolf in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Kerewin is an artist with an artist's block, and the block is related to her choice to live in a place of human isolation. Kerewin protects herself by creating a “stasis” (261) for herself within her artist's place. She denies entrance to the Tower to all other people because:

she was self-fulfilling, delighted with the pre-eminence of her art, and the future of her knowing hands. (7)

She insists that her rejection of people signifies her superior intellect: “The smarter you are, the more you know, the less reason you have to trust or love …” (128). However, she comes to recognize stasis as “a hell in itself” (261). Her intention in building the tower was to create a “hermitage” or “retreat” on “almost an island” (7). But the “sanctuary” becomes a “prison” (7) which she can not tear down. Deceiving herself that her self-imposed exile is in fact the condition of self-knowledge, she follows systems of knowledge with intense self-consciousness and monitors the condition of her self or “soul”:

Futureprobe, Tarot and I Ching … A broad general knowledge, encompassing bits of history, psychology, ethology, religious theory and practices of many kinds. Her charts of self-knowledge. … (90)

All are “tools” which help her to “make sense of living,” but she is honest enough to admit that “none of them helped” (90).

To refer to Kerewin as a “heroine” would be a contradiction in terms. “Heroine” connotes a passive position where a female is rescued by or at least subordinate to a male. Feminist critics3 refer to a “conceptual difficulty” when speaking of female heroes as “heroines” because women do set out actively on paths to self discovery in which they demonstrate individual relationships to the world. The conventional female, fulfilling conventional female roles, accepts these (self-) destructive conventions and exists as “heroine.” To do so, she represses her “essential” self and presents a mask to the world. Rather than act herself, the “heroine” waits passively for a male rescuer to change her circumstance. Kerewin may repress her “essential” self (the self who can lead), and present a mask of self-satisfied isolation to society, but at no time does she adopt conventional female roles. While she waits passively for change, she does not wait for a male rescuer. As Hulme says, Kerewin has “got herself into that slough of despond” and she's “waiting for something to change it” (“Constructing the Author”, emphasis added).

Thus, although Kerewin has rejected conventional female (heroine) roles, she is, nonetheless, in flight away from her quest. At this point it is typical for supernatural intervention to lead the reluctant hero away from frequented paths. That Simon fulfills this role is implied by his similarity with the Maori mythical hero, Maui. Both Simon and Maui are abandoned to the sea as infants and raised by adoptive parents. Simon is mischievous and his mates reject him just as Maui's own brothers reject his companionship. Undaunted, Maui makes a magic bone hook and stows away in a fishing boat intending to catch the greatest fish. He strikes his own nose and, using the clotted blood for bait, lands the whole North Island of New Zealand, an act which frightens his more timid brothers. This “story” occurs literally in the section, “The Sea Round,” when Simon overcomes his aversion to the sea and lands his fish at the expense of his thumb's flesh. Symbolically, Simon's fish represents his idea of human community, a concept which Kerewin has resisted. Literally, Simon intervenes when he enters Kerewin's enclosed domain. His presence forces her to accept some human responsibility. He uses his own blood to bait Joe and Kerewin into a confrontation which he hopes will help them acknowledge the importance of their family bond.

Simon also evokes association with Rehua, the long-haired, sacred child of Rangi and Papa. Rehua is variously significant in Maori myth.4 He is the god who released the bellbird from his long hair as a gift to mortals. He is known as the sun-god, which the novel directly reflects as Kerewin thinks of Simon as the “sunchild”. Furthermore, he is the god who disperses sadness, a role Simon enacts in the novel as he ultimately disperses Kerewin's “unjoy” and alienation. That Hulme had Rehua in mind is suggested by several references in the text.5 In addition Rehua is discussed “in A. W. Reed's retellings” of Maori legend which Hulme has been reading since her school days (Ricketts 19).

Although Kerewin tentatively accepts a degree of responsibility, eventually she rejects Simon. Thus, as hero, Kerewin “refuses” the quest throughout most of the novel. She is protagonist, but not heroic. However, at the point of catastrophe, two crises initiate her literal and archetypal quest journey. The brutal events in the relationship with Simon and Joe, and the apparent threat to her life from a tumour send her away from the frequent paths of home, into the darkness. After Simon is hospitalized Kerewin is in full flight away not only from human community, but from life itself. Always identifying with te kaihau, she “travelled for weeks in an aimless way” (411). The identification with te kaihau is appropriate in that the Maori may mean either “wanderer” or “loafer” (12). For most of the novel, Kerewin is “loafer.” Kerewin's “intrinsic nature” (essential self) according to Hulme, is that of a “very active person who's reneged on her responsibilities.” Thus, Kerewin is a “very passive kind of person” who “sort of sits and sulks in her tower and does virtually nothing” (“Constructing the Author” 26).

After Kerewin flees her tower, she becomes the “wanderer”. This section, “The Woman at the Wellspring of Death,” is the quest journey proper. She has given up her “base” or home, symbolized by the burning of her Tower, entered the world of darkness when she walks “away into the night” (331). She moves in the fluid dreamscape which characterizes this phase of the quest. She undergoes trials of pain with the tumour and eczema, and listlessly watches the ruin of her body. The trial is “atonement” for her past life which she endures with new-found humility:

You have given up your home. Because the burden of uselessness became too much. Because the loneliness of being a stranger to everyone grows. Because knowledge of your selfishness has grown to be unendurable. (412)

Kerewin chastizes herself for her lack of charity and faith: “you do not have the gracemeet of faith, faith in anything” (412). She is not entirely despondent as she knows the “meaning and signpost for the journey is Hope Obscure” (330). Despite her certain death, “spiritually” she “still hopes” (412) and she gives herself over to the darkness. Kerewin does not resist self-annihilation, the prerequisite to rebirth. She willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass. In doing so she is divested of her humanity. She experiences the ruin of her body—symbolically the ruin of her old ego. Paradoxically, the hero dies to be reborn; so Kerewin understands, “I went away. Now, I am come.” She experiences a “new strength” after deciding to come to “the high barren hills, the anchored remote land” (419).

At the point when Kerewin experiences the total disintegration of her human self, (suggested when she thinks, “I haven't got bones now. They're fired, dissolved, earth to earth again” [423]), she encounters the “goddess.” The figure is androgynous, of “indeterminate age” with a marled, scarred face. The quester having reached the Chapel Perilous must ask the correct question; Kerewin, however, must answer correctly the question posed by the supernatural figure: “What do you love” (423)? The answer, which gives her the “ultimate treasure” or the gift of life, is:

not me alone. [Simon's] the bright sun in the eastern sky, and [Joe's] the moon's bridegroom at night, and me, I'm the link and the life between them. (424)

The significance of the symbolism may be found in a proverb from Tane, “tenei nga tokorua, te ra, te marama.” (“There are two, the sun, the moon,” from which came the perfection of light.) According to some legends, this union resulted in the birth of Nga Whetu, the stars (Reed 31). Another legend has Te Ra, Te Marama and Nga Whetu all children of Rangi and Papa, three different, but necessary forms of light (Reed 411). Both legends are reflected in the novel as the presence of Joe and Simon leads to Kerewin's rebirth; at the same time Kerewin considers herself the “moon's sister” (89).

Kerewin's “return” from darkness to the human world is marked by a purging of her body, and by the sound of supernatural voices (in a karanga) which welcome and call her to come, “Haere mai! Nau mai! Haere mai!” The voice from “no-one living” “floods” through her with a “tide of wellbeing … a fierce joy at being alive” (426-27). She recognizes:

Art and family by blood; home and family by love … [sic] regaining any one was worth this fiery journey to the heart of the sun. (428)

Kerewin has become the “sun door”6 through which others may pass. She dreams of a “wrecked rusting building” which when “she touched the threshold, … sprang straight and rebuilt, and other buildings flowed out of it in a bewildering colonization” (428). And “new marae from old marae” (3) initiates her return.

Kerewin's new sense of responsibility takes several forms: she rebuilds the marae; she shelters a cat which she names Li, a Buddhist term and “part of the doctrine which affirms that the harmony of the universe is realized when each thing is allowed to be itself without interference” (“Breaking Ground” 49); she investigates Simon's true origins, arranging legal and binding responsibility for him; finally, she rebuilds her home, not in the narrow, vertical spiral of the Tower's staircase which accommodates only one, but in a wide, horizontal spiral which accommodates many, offering “privacy, apartness, but all connected and all part of the whole” (434). The act fulfills the dream vision in which she restores one building and “other buildings flowed out of it” (428). Just as her act of rebuilding the marae leads to “other building,” the restoration of her self will lead to the restoration of Simon and Joe.

Symbolically, Kerewin's final break with the past is marked by her attitude and actions towards “The Book of the Soul,” in which she records the significant events of her life. This “logbook,” so precious she keeps it under lock and key, accompanies her when she flees the Tower. However, upon completing her quest, the “Book of the Soul” elicits her contempt, “Pretentious bugger, Holmes, taking yourself that seriously …” (430). After recording the final events of her “journey” Kerewin follows, “the Chinese: on the funeral pyre” of dead selves, she places a “paper replica of what is real” (437). The book had been her “last resort, a soul-hold beyond even the bottle” (430), but now, having “come a way since” (431), she places the book in “the heart of the fire and closes the range door upon it” (437). In early drafts, Hulme had Kerewin pack the book away, however, to show how significantly Kerewin had moved beyond her “whimper book,” Hulme decided to “get rid of it altogether” (Hall 21). The action signifies the final death of her old self. Kerewin has won the freedom to live, redefining human love and anchoring it in work and community.

Whether the novel “succeeds” depends largely upon the reader's response to Kerewin as a character and her successful completion of the quest. Joe's quest to recover his Maori spirituality is essential to the mythic structure, but the potential to create a new future lies with Kerewin. It is Kerewin in whom Hulme is most interested. Whether one accepts the character as “hero” is finally personal and largely dependent upon one's own polemical preferences. If the reader is threatened by the concept of “androgyny/neuter-ality”, and concerned that in the “real world” a male ego could not endure a beating from a female,7 the novel is restricted to a personal, limited perception of reality and probability. However, if in receiving the events of the novel, we allow that a female may search for identity in creative, rather than procreative means “we are presented with an image of a woman with the power to surprise, disturb, and even rearrange ideas” (“Breaking Ground” 49). It is possible that Hulme fulfills one feminist critic's challenge to print stories with “images of women” that can provide “new visions of individual and shared power that can inspire the transformation of a culture and society.” (Christ 131). Hulme says she wanted to suggest that everyone in New Zealand has “lost out by Maori people not being spiritually fully alive” (Hall 17). With Kerewin leading, the three characters become the bone people, that is, the model for the “people who make another people” (469), the model for bicultural community.

Does the novel extend itself too far? Do the characters stand up under the symbolic burden placed on them as redemptive figures? These are questions which pakeha academics ask themselves. Although some contemporary, theoretical positions will not privilege the author's reading above any other, I think it is worth noting that Hulme herself resists affiliation with the pakeha literary world in New Zealand:

I haven't much liked it—not from any idea that I'm special, just simply because it doesn't nourish or seem good to get involved with. (Ricketts 29)

By choice, Hulme is outside the pakeha academic world. Thus, it is the response from within the Maori community which she values:

The bloody nice thing about The Bone People was the way it circulated round Maoridom. That to me was the best thing of all. (Ricketts 24)

The Pegasus Award for Maori Literature meant to Hulme that “regardless of how mongrel you are” the work was “accepted as a Maori thing” (Ricketts 24). Pakeha critics, however, deny the novel's Maori elements. C. K. Stead argues that Joe's quest to recover his Maori spirituality, “read as Maori lore or fiction,” is “almost totally spurious” (107). Prentice sees the novel as the “balancing of positions within the post-colonial society” and agrees with Stead; reading the novel as Maori is “inherent ludicrousness” (69). However, the commensal vision depends upon accepting Maori spirituality in The Bone People. If Joe's quest is “spurious,” the novel collapses. Perhaps it is opting for the easy response, but as a pakeha inevitably outside Maori spirituality, I cannot criticize the novel as mythicized self-projection. A Maori critic, writing from inside, may justify such a response,8 but imposing pakeha value judgements on the novel feels too much like racism.

I have, however, become uneasy with the commensal vision. By whatever means Kerewin may “win a home” in The Bone People, she is the exception rather than the rule in Hulme's work. Questers abound in Hulme's short fiction. The characters are similar to Kerewin in ways I shall suggest, but no other character, as yet, completes the heroic journey to return to a new-found community. These endings in Te Kaihau may be more “believable” in the light of the real world in which we think we live and, therefore, more convincing to readers like Stead; they also point to Hulme's resistance against the possibility of commensalism or community. Simply, images of alienation dominate over community in Hulme's oeuvre.

Hulme subverts gender roles as consciously in the short fiction as in The Bone People. Females do not seek self-hood in conventional roles of wife and mother. Although Hulme insists that there is “no way [her] actions are those of somebody who has a commitment to a feminist cause,” she reacts against being forced into the socially constructed “female role” (“Constructing the Author” 31). Thus, several characters are of indeterminate gender.9 We are never certain whether the narrators in “Unnamed Islands in the Unknown Sea,” or in “King Bait” are male or female. For example the narrator in “King Bait” says:

I shot out of bed, into my denims and t-shirt faster than it's said, grabbed my boots … (Te Kaihau 39)

Written in first person, Hulme effectively uses the pronoun “I” to hide the narrator's gender. The text gives no conclusive evidence in either direction. The clothing is sufficiently uni-sexed; the narrator is never addressed or referred to in dialogue.

Other characters are approximations of Hulme's “neuter” concept. A “neuter” person has “no sexual loyalties” and, therefore, is “free to adopt whatever blend of qualities society deems to be specifically male or female” (“Constructing the Author” 31). The narrator in “A Nightsong for the Shining Cuckoo” is female (“Aunt Frances”) but gender boundaries are crossed until she becomes effectively “neuter.” The name, for example, is both male and female, differentiated only by spelling. The physiotherapist refers to her as, “you old bush-ahh-person, you” (119). The taxi driver addresses her with the typically male, “Where to, mate?” (120, emphasis added). She associates herself with the male when she thinks, “I'm one of the maimed … Like tired old men wed to alcohol” (132-33). Like Kerewin, she has lived alone in the country, built her own house, and is “strong in the shoulders and arms” to prove it (120). Furthermore, she has done male associated work—contracting to cut “white pine posts” (127). As with Kerewin's relationship with Joe, Frances is identified with male associated work, while the male, Charlie, cooks for them both, “cleans most of the place” (129), and doesn't “know a shovel from a spade” (128). As in The Bone People, it is not a matter of simple role reversal. Frances is also the conventional nurturer, concerned for Bird, earning Charlie's contempt, “You haven't gone soft. You've gone bloody soppy” (126).10

Te Kaihau contains several trinities of male, female, and child relationships. Unlike The Bone People, none endure. In “Nightsong For the Shining Cuckoo,” the bonds are not the conventional blood bonds of family. The maimed woman, her nephew, and a Maori orphan interact but circumstance and the nephew's cruelty defeat any possibility of community. “Hooks and Feelers” shows three members of a conventional marriage alienated by sickness and physical mutilation. In “One Whale Singing,” the female and her unborn child are oppressed by her jargon-spouting, academic partner from whom she longs to escape. The story leaves her swimming alone in the warm, nurturing sea, but implicitly too far from the shore to survive the swim.

As in The Bone People, characters are alienated from family. Despite the “rare times” in the community of “guests” when she woke to hear her mother's “thin perfect soprano” and the father's “velvet baritone,” the young girl in “The Knife and the Stone” flees from her family and the incestuous abuse from an alcoholic father who “would come lurching and whispering God I love you girl love you girl, fumbling, delving” (100). The woman in “While My Guitar Gently Sings” also feels alienated: “all the time I wanted to be alone and quiet down by the creek” (107). She rejects the Maori community which her family represents, but like Kerewin, she has found nothing to replace it:

I still hate all that shit, men being tapu, and women being noa. Don't eat here; don't put your head there. Don't hang your clothes higher than the men's: never get up and talk on the marae. (114)

The bleakness of her life-style contrasts the generosity of her mother presenting her first guitar. The image of the mother “six feet tall and nearly sixteen stone” standing “ebulliently,” contrasts the “shuddering” narrator (115-6). Thus, as in so much of Hulme's short fiction, images of human warmth give way to alienation to the point of psychosis; the story ends typically with the woman “alone in the dark” (116).

The short fiction also shows Hulme's preoccupation with supernatural encounters, as in “Planetesimal” and “Te Kaihau/The Windeater.” Unlike the supernatural figures in The Bone People, neither encounter rejuvenates the protagonist, rather they initiate the characters' final destruction. Like Kerewin, the narrator in “Te Kaihau/The Windeater” is both “wanderer” and “loafer.” She lives on the Cook Strait Ferry, sleeping alternately in Wellington and Picton. Later, she isolates herself in a house where, again like Kerewin, she “grows things;” “pet slime moulds” and “umbrella toadstools on a dishcloth” that she recalls “fondly.” She drinks and would have “kept on that way” until her “liver gave out except for a series of accidents” (225). Similarly to Kerewin, she is a quester, but she “always asked the wrong questions” (212). She is obssessed with knowledge, distrusts what she sees (214), and privileges intuitive knowledge above intellectual. She “lays” before the reader “the unusual and irrational bits” from her life because they are “the only bits that make sense” to her “right now” (211). However, in contrast to Kerewin's encounter with Simon/Maui, the “young Rasta” who is the Maui figure in this story initiates the narrator's death and, presumably, the end of the world. Maui was raised by his aunts, the Winds, but in this story the wind is ambiguously both mythic and realistic. The narrator's final vision of the “sinker” is like a bomb; “just before the fish [Aotearoa] shatters … the incandescent cloud will roar” (236).11

As suggested above, the Maori myths which fuel The Bone People also fuel “Te Kaihau/The Windeater.” Where Hulme “made a hook” with The Bone People to raise the characters to face the “bright broad daylight” of “home” (445), she has “made a sinker” with the “Windeater” persona who, “in another second,” will “be gone” (237). Where Kerewin is the spider and ultimately sees herself “weaving webs” of future events (431), the windeater's life is “an old spiderweb” with the remains of “past feasts.” What is missing, however, “what is needed to make sense of it all, is the spider” (235). Kerewin, as “spider,” makes “sense” of her world; the “windeater” cannot find the spider and comments on the impossibility of making “sense”:

a woman trying to make sense of her self and her living and her world. Which all goes to show the charming naivety of us humans. Sense of a world indeed! (237)

The passage exemplifies what Wedde calls Hulme's “bleak vision with the garrulous humour” (35).

Te Kaihau may reveal Hulme's anxiety about “the authenticity of transferring experience to paper” (Wedde 35). Certainly the stories do exhibit an anxiety about language and experience. The fragments in “Lost Possessions” and “Unnamed Islands in Unknown Seas” show that words do not prove existence. On the contrary, the “authorities” in “Unnamed Islands” decide that the words are “an obscure joke.” The “Department's” reader doubts the authenticity of the fragment examined because as [s]he says, “Nobody has explained satisfactorily to me why …” (170, emphasis added). Thus, the “Department's” reader becomes narrator and creates the problem of deciding which, if either, narrator to believe. In “Kite Flying at Doctor's Point,” the narrator wonders if words have the capacity to represent experience:

Have I told you anything? Or is it all just writing? All just words?

Hulme knows from her reading of the Maui cycle, that words are potentially lethal. Several versions of the myth explain Maui's death by the inaccurate use of language. A particularly tapu word was omitted from the karakia in his baptismal blessing, a mistake which Maui's father knew would cause Maui's death (Reed 123). Hulme confirms her anxiety about the elusiveness of language: “You've … got all the words there but sometimes it's the spaces between that are conveying the full impact of emotions” (Smith 28). This gap seems out of the writer's control, but Hulme recognizes it is in this gap where the power she desires exists. As the narrator in “Te Kaihau” says “if you split” the word [windeater] a “power leaks out” (237).

Te Kaihau, then, exhibits an anxiety about language and experience. At the same time the short fiction is working out problems the novel raised for the writer. Hulme's tendency to write multiple endings is evident in “A Tally of the Souls of Sheep” in which the narrator, as script-writer, considers a series of six, possible endings for the characters. Like the multiple versions behind any Maori myth, the outcome:

… depends
on what story
you hear. (240)

Pluralism results from the fact that “someone else sees the same thing very differently” (215), and, thus, “there are many stories/told” (239). Every event has infinite tellings. Every tribe has a variation on the myth. One “story” tells the survival of Maui, rescued by his aunt, the “Wind.” However, if we pursue the myth, we know that ultimately Maui is destroyed (“crushed between the thighs of Hine-nui-te-po” 240). The Bone People is one narrative, and must be considered as separate; nevertheless, the possibility of community is undermined by the destructive vision of Te Kaihau where one after another, the characters are inevitably “crushed.” In The Bone People, Hulme glosses over the literal definition for te kaihau to emphasize the comparatively innocuous associations with loafer and wanderer. However, by including the word “Windeater” in the title to her volume of short fiction, she foregrounds the literal (that is, in English), “windeating” makes simply breathing a potentially voracious, threatening activity. Thus, if The Bone People represents Hulme's ascendant spiral, Te Kaihau/The Windeater is the descendant spiral. The Maui, who ties the sun to the moon in order that they might pull each other up into the sky and benefit humankind, is reflected in The Bone People. The vengeful Maui, who turns his brother-in-law into a dog because his crops were more bountiful than Maui's own, belongs to Te Kaihau.

Perhaps it is to Hulme's poetry we must turn for a synthesis. The final poem in The Silences Between, “Moeraki Conversations 6,” seems to incorporate the simultaneous ascent and descent of the double spiral. The poet says, “we are full of talk and singing, sprawled / in a ring round the fire.” In the course of the night, “one, by one, two by two, we drift away to bed.” The poet says, “there is only us” (54-55). The reader is drawn into the poem because the poet, writing as “we,” includes the reader as the subject and object, implicating the reader in the writing. At the same time, the plural pronouns seem to integrate the poet into the group which the now familiar image of the solitary poet “waiting in the dark” contradicts. “We” may drift away, but the poet remains. Just as Hulme can hide gender with the pronoun “I,” she can hide an essentially isolationist vision with the pronoun “we.” What Hulme gives the reader is the “self” constantly on the move, shifting ground to prevent the reader from latching onto the poet. The poet is both visible and invisible.12 Thus, I find that the poem's ideas and structures “work against each other” and “unsettle” the “stability of one another.” The use of “we” obscures the fundamental separateness of the “I” speaker.

Hulme says that her “intention” in writing The Bone People reflects Jung's idea of individuation: “You cannot be, obviously, a total isolate and you have a responsibility as a communal person to be a constructive force rather than a destructive force” (“Breaking Ground” 27). Traditionally, the Maori individual just doesn't “make sense” apart from “whenua, your hapu.” It is the reason, Hulme notes, that other Maori writers “tend to work from a ‘we’ perspective. It's thoroughly Maori and thoroughly proper.” However, “people are now taught to be individuals and to see themselves apart … from the community.” Traditional, Maori, collective identity, Hulme says, “can no longer work” in the eighties (“Breaking Ground” 27). Hulme seems to regret the impossibility of the Maori “we,” but elsewhere she validates the pakeha “I”:

We're taught to have regard for other people and to put ourselves down. I do that. We all know what happens if you don't. (Wichtel 21)

Hulme demonstrates for the interviewer exactly “what happens” as she “delivers herself a karate chop to the neck, lethal variety” (Wichtel 21). “We” then becomes a pretense, a “commensal” camouflage behind which the “I” pursues the self. It is Hulme's way of avoiding society's “lethal karate chop.” Hulme's writing reflects her ambivalence between the “learned response,” the socially acceptable vision of community, and a more fundamental belief in the isolate self—a belief which I believe goes beyond Hulme's desire to subvert gender roles. (“There is no way my actions are those of somebody who has a commitment to a feminist cause. …”) While The Bone People may attempt a synthesis between the Maori “we” and pakeha “I” (see Peter Simpson), Te Kaihau demonstrates the defeat of “we” with the holocaust sinking of “o so many islands” (240) in the title story. Ultimately, because Hulme believes the Maori “we” can no longer work, it is the Te Kaihau vision which dominates. I am more terrified by the violence, menace, and doom in Te Kaihau than I am heartened by the vision of the “bone people” as instruments of future change. And so, I believe, is Keri Hulme.


  1. This preface in Te Kaihau might be considered “poetic fiction,” a duality reflected in the title word “tara,” meaning half and half. However, I call it poetry because it was published separately in a recent anthology of poetry, The New Poets.

  2. To describe Kerewin's quest as a female hero, I use a model which feminist critics Pearson, Pope, and Pratt have amended from Joseph Campbell. The hero's journey is divided into three stages: the Departure which includes the call to adventure, the refusal, and the intervention of supernatural aid; the Initiation, which includes the meeting with the goddess, atonement, and reconciliation; and the Return where the hero returns to society.

  3. Pearson, Pope, and Pratt.

  4. Reed's Treasury of Maori Folklore reflects the variations in myth.

  5. Shona Smith notes the association with Rehua in “Breaking Ground” (45).

  6. Campbell's term.

  7. See C. K. Stead, “When an argument between [Joe] and Kerewin turns into a fight, Kerewin … beats him effortlessly, a beating which he accepts with great good humour and with no apparent damage to his ego. This is not the only point at which the reader is likely to feel the novel has taken a dive from reality into wishful day-dream” (106-07).

  8. See Merata Mita, for example, who writes that “an elusive realm of embryonic dreamtime and unformed imagination tends to mystify Maori spirituality to the point of regression, especially in the case of Kerewin.”

  9. Prentice accurately notes that “some of Hulme's stories … present characters of indeterminate gender.” The point is valid, but she misreads “Stations on the Way to Avalon.” The narrator is not “indeterminate” as Prentice claims; he is clearly addressed as Robert.

  10. See Smith and Prentice. Both discuss behaviourally ambiguous characters.

  11. Wedde implies this reading in his review.

  12. We have seen this protection of the “self” in the short fiction with the double narrator, “Lost Possessions” and “Unnamed Islands,” or the narrator/script-writer whose consciousness controls the characters in “Tally.” The narrative layers form a barrier between the implied or external narrator (self) and reader.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. 2nd Ed. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1968.

Christ, Carol. Deep Diving and Surfacing. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980.

Dale, Judith. “The Bone People (Not) Having It Both Ways.” Landfall 39. 4 (1985).

Hall, Sandi. “Sandi Hall and Keri Hulme talk about The Bone People.” Broadsheet 121 (1984).

Hulme, Keri. Lost Possessions. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1985.

———. Te Kaihau/The Windeater. Wellington: Victoria U.P., 1986.

———. The Bone People. Auckland: Spiral in association with Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.

———. The Silences Between (Moeraki Conversations). Auckland: Auckland U. P., 1982.

Jones, Lawrence. Barbed Wire and Mirrors. Dunedin: Otago U. P., 1987.

Mita, Merate. “Indigenous Literature in a Colonial Society: rev. of The Bone People.” The Republican52 (1984).

Parker, Selwyn. “Bankable Authors.” North and South Nov. 1987.

Pearson, Carol, and Katherine Pope. The Female Hero in American and British Literature. New York and London: R. R. Bowker Company, 1981.

Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Brighton: The Harvestor Press, 1982.

Prentice, Chris. “Re-writing their Stories, Renaming Themselves: Post-colonialism and Feminism in the Fictions of Keri Hulme and Audrey Thomas.” SPAN No. 23 (1987).

Reed, A. W. Treasury of Maori Folklore. Wellington and Auckland: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1963.

Ricketts, Harry. Talking About Ourselves. Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1986.

Simpson, Peter. Press 1 Sept. 1984.

Smith, Shona. “Constructing the Author.” Untold 4 (Spring 1985).

———. “Keri Hulme: Breaking Ground.” Untold 2 (Spring 1984).

Stead, C. K. “Keri Hulme's The Bone People and the Pegasus Award for Maori Literature.” Ariel 16. 4 (1985).

Wedde, Ian. “Trying to Make Sense.” Listener 31 May 1986.

Wichtel, Diana. “Taking Off.” Listener 16 Nov. 1985.

Thomas E. Benediktsson (essay date Winter 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4862

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 statement of the conscious fictionality of realistic narrative. Of course, that statement is duplicitous if viewed in the light of realism's second claim, that the work bears a resemblance to social and psychological reality, that in important ways it tells us the truth about “the effect of experience on individuals” if not about “the nature of experience itself.” The distinction is Edward Eigner's, who argues that the attempt in the nineteenth-century novel to reconcile scientific truth with metaphysical truth was initiated to discredit the empirical, not to validate it. In this paper I am taking a similar position: attempts to reconcile realism with the supernatural in the contemporary postcolonial novel are undertaken in an effort to undermine the ideological base that supports realism.

The act of reading a realist text, then, is based on the reader's conscious or unconscious assimilations of the text's incorporated contradictions: fictionality and mimesis. Like Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, readers (I should say readers innocent of literary theory) say to themselves “It's the truth, even if it didn't happen.”

Increasingly, however, theory has focused our attention on realism's first claim by attacking the second. Defining mimesis as a set of conventions, structuralism analyzed its arbitrary, elaborated codes. Terry Eagleton discusses S/Z, Roland Barthes's classic structuralist study of mimesis as the “work of the break,” which points the way toward poststructuralism by emphasizing the “irreducibly plural” nature of texts (138). Poststructuralism, asserting that language does not so much reflect reality as create the reality we know, had led in the 1970s and early 1980s to many discussions of the way realistic texts construct and deconstruct their own claims to representations.

The poststructuralist “death of the author” (Barthes) has led us in two directions: on the one hand into an emphasis on textuality and intertextuality, on the other to an exploration of the social and material conditions that generate literary texts. In this latter respect the text is “always charged by ideology—those unspoken collective understandings, conventions, stories and cultural practices that uphold systems of social power” (Kaplan 6). For some, then, realism engages in an active dialogue with a changing culture, creating and critiquing its meanings. In that sense realism is “one of the crucial symbolic forms through which collective sense is forged” (Pendergast 217). For other poststructuralist critics, the realist novel, born in the late eighteenth century and persisting in a conservative literary tradition into the present, is part of the vast project of bourgeois capitalism; its emphases on totalization and closure, in fact on the mimetic correspondence between narrative form and social reality, are hegemonic, or as Derrida puts it, “a matter for the police” (102). Ruptures in realism—violations of its codes—can be construed as acts of rebellion against this tyranny.

In this essay I would like to examine some “ruptures” in the realism of two postcolonial novels, each of which attempts to find alternatives to the Western rationalism, pragmatism, and linearity that support realism's codes. In the first, Leslie Silko's Ceremony, Tayo, half white and half Pueblo Indian, is a young World War II veteran who, as a prisoner of war, cursed the jungle monsoon that he felt was causing his step-brother's death. Having returned to the reservation after a time in a veteran's hospital, Tayo is convinced that his curse caused the drought that is now afflicting his reservation. Suffering from this guilt and from other forms of distress, Tayo learns that his illness is part of a larger pattern of evil—the “witchery” brought about by those who seek the world's destruction. Tayo is healed by a series of Pueblo and Navaho purificaton ceremonies and by a personal ceremony he performs for himself. During his quest he has an encounter with a mysterious young woman named Ts'eh, later identified as Spider Woman, a supernatural figure from Pueblo legend.

The second work I will discuss is Keri Hulme's The Bone People, a novel first published in 1984, by the Spiral Collective, an independent press formed in New Zealand to bring out the book after it had been rejected by the major publishers in that country. Kerewin Holmes, part white and part Maori, is a failed artist who lives alone in a stone tower by the ocean. Her alcoholic solitude is broken by the wayward mute orphan child Simon and by his step-father Joe, a nearly full-blooded Maori. Kerewin's growing love for Joe is blighted by her discovery that he brutally beats Simon, and she decides tragically to intervene. When she gives Joe permission to beat Simon, and he beats the child nearly to death, he is imprisoned and Simon institutionalized. Kerewin, afflicted by stomach cancer, withdraws to a distant place to die; she is cured by the miraculous intervention of a supernatural figure. Joe, released from prison, is cured of his violence and guilt by the discovery of a sacred place, the landing-site of one of the original Great Canoes. Simon, escaping from his foster home, is reunited with Kerewin and Joe at the end, as his character blends with Maui, the Trickster figure of Maori myth.

These two novels share a plot that has become common in the postcolonial novel. In labelling novels by an American Indian and a New Zealand Maori “postcolonial,” I am using the term in a fairly broad sense. My point is that the plot pattern I have identified here, common in postcolonial novelists as diverse as Achebe, Narayan, and Ousmene, is a literary representation of a deep cultural conflict among formerly colonized people. A member of an oppressed and marginalized people is suffering from a grave illness, a malady that seems simultaneously to be psychological, physical, and spiritual. Eventually this character is healed through traditional ritual and through a literal encounter with the supernatural, whose reawakening accompanies the main character's rebirth. At the end of the novel this powerless person has appropriated a source of transcendent power, and there is hope for a new society based on the values of the reborn traditional culture: as Silko puts it at the end of Ceremony, the witchery “is dead for now” (261).

The form of both novels involves breaking the codes of realism, not only introducing romance elements and evoking the supernatural, but also disrupting the linearity of the narrative and altering its spatial and psychological geography. The stream-of-consciousness technique, used in both novels, alters rationalism through the nonrational flow of sensation, perception, and intuition. The introduction of myth layers the text further by juxtaposing the temporal with the timeless, the diachronic with the synchronic. These textual strategies not only force the Western reader to abandon empiricism, but they also create a fictive realm of possibility and power—the possibility of the awakening of the traditional gods, and the power of those reawakened gods to cure the postcolonial malaise.

From the beginning of Ceremony, Silko introduces textual elements that disrupt the linearity of her narrative. By far the greater part of the novel is told from the point of view of Tayo. At first, the narrative moves freely and confusingly, juxtaposing incidents in Tayo's life which are separated widely in time:

… he got no rest as long as the memories were tangled with the present, tangled up like colored threads from old Grandma's wicker sewing basket when he was a child. … He could feel it inside his skull—the tension of little threads being pulled and how it was with tangled things, things tied together, and as he tried to pull them apart and rewind them into their places, they snagged and tangled even more. (7)

The reader's task to “untangle” these threads of experience is rather difficult in the opening fifty pages of the novel. Before long, however, through iteration a temporal pattern emerges, and the reader can reconstruct the linear narrative of Tayo's life. What seems at first to be ruptures in realism are actually representations of the flow of consciousness of a disturbed man. As Tayo begins to heal, the narrative attains more linearity until the last eighty pages are told in straightforward chronological order. Thus realism, understood as the mimetic representation of linear experience, is not threatened.

A second disruptive element, however, is not so easily reconciled. From the beginning the “realistic” prose narrative—the novel—is interrupted by free-verse texts of Pueblo myths and stories. Thematically and tropologically, the stories bear complex intertextual relations to the novel, which by the end is understood as a part of a much greater web of meaning, encompassing all Pueblo cultural experience. Edith Swan has discussed the intricate structural relationships between Silko's novel and Pueblo and Navaho ceremonies.

The stories construct their own hermeneutic. From the opening creation myth, Silko establishes the Pueblo storyteller's claim to an art in which language is directly related to the physical world:

Thought-Woman, the spider,
 named things and 
as she named them
they appeared.
She is sitting in her room
thinking of a story now
I'm telling you the story 
she is thinking. (1)

Stories are corporeal, as real as the five worlds of Pueblo cosmology. Stories keep the people alive:

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren't just entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off 
illness and death. …
He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
[he said]
Here, put your hand on it 
See, it is moving.
There is life here 
for the people. (2)

The text of the novel enfolds and incorporates the texts of the stories. By the end, however, in a kind of chiasmus, the stories have incorporated the novel. The stories inscribe and circumscribe Tayo's own story, until the ceremonies by which he is healed serve a kind of hermeneutic: he can read his own life as a Pueblo story. Just as the limited claims of realism have become subsumed into the much greater claims of Pueblo storytelling tradition, Silko's role as novelist has been subsumed into the role of the Pueblo story-teller—naming the world, defending the people, helping fight off illness and death. In the process, the linear flow of meaning that dominates mimetic representation has been supplanted by a kind of “spider web” of meaning in which the interrelationships among the stories revise time and space, just as Thought Woman tells her stories in a timeless realm.

The key moment in Ceremony that proclaims the storyteller's victory is the moment when the world of Pueblo myth enters the text of the novel itself, not as an intertextual referent but as a third and irrevocable disruption of realism. In his relationship with Ts'eh, Tayo has an encounter with divinity. Ts'eh's love restores him to health, and she warns him of the plot against his life by the veteran Emo, agent of the witchery that now no longer seems merely figurative. The last stage of Tayo's ceremony occurs when, at the site of the uranium mine that supplied the ore for the Manhattan Project, he successfully resists the urge to kill Emo. In his victory over the witchery, Tayo has been healed with the help of incarnate divinity. In the process the realist novel, itself a manifestation of the hegemony of the white world over the Pueblo and therefore a symptom of the malaise from which Tayo has suffered, has been transformed.

Unlike Ceremony,The Bone People does not include traditional myths and stories that challenge realism's codes. Rich in physical and psychological detail, the novel's dialogue and indirect discourse employ a pungent New Zealand vernacular interspersed with Maori phrases, which are translated in an appendix. With considerable vividness and plenitude of detail, there is a strong impression of verisimilitude. The ruptures in realism occur in other ways.

The first is an issue that should in some ways reinforce rather than subvert the novel's claim of mimesis. The name “Kerewin Holmes” bears obvious similarity to that of the author Keri Hulme. We suspect that Joe, Simon, and other characters have living counterparts as well, and we are thus encouraged to read the text both as novel and as autobiography. Thus the novel may contain traces of an implied autobiographical text or texts. Tempted to deconstruct the text as we read it, we search for autobiographical clues that may or may not be present in a narrative that in other ways proclaims its fictionality. This double reading does subvert realism.

Traces of still other texts abound in The Bone People. The lonely woman living in a stone tower by the sea, visited by a mute child, a changeling who himself came from the sea—the plot is redolent of fairy tale, of Celtic romance. Further, since Kerewin is both eclectically well-read and verbally histrionic, her voice, which dominates the text, is filled with allusions and echoes. And finally, the technical influence of James Joyce is ubiquitous.

These intertextual elements, leading the reader to an encounter with the materiality of the text itself, comprise ruptures in realism. As in Ceremony, the linear flow of the narrative is altered through the introduction of a controlling metaphor or hermenuetic trope—not the spider web of Thought Woman's design, but the spiral, a design element in Maori art that has special meaning to Kerewin and ultimately to the narrative itself, which will move not only linearly but in a spiralling, concentric pattern, as Kerewin and Joe confront their innermost fears and desires. Like Ceremony, realism here is ruptured irrevocably by the introduction of the supernatural that accompanies the reawakening of the traditional gods.

Late in the novel, when Joe meets the kaumatua (old man) who has been guarding the sacred site of the landfall of one of the Great Canoes, he learns that he, Kerewin, and Simon are the foretold new guardians. He also learns that the spiritual power of the place emanates not from the site but from a stone that came on the canoe, a stone holding a mauriora (life-power) that has not yet departed from the world. After the kaumatua's death, when Joe takes the stone with him, there is hope that Kerewin, Joe, and Simon—reunited and cured of madness, illness, and violence—will create a new “marae” or site of community, inspired by the presence of the awakened mauriora. Like Tayo, they represent hope for a new world.

Both Ceremony and The Bone People portray characters who are at first trapped in narratives of victimization and oppression, narratives inscribed and supported by the codes of realism. It is the ideological task of realism to make its structures seem “natural” and “inevitable”—“natural” in the conviction that language offers a clear and undistorted view of social reality, and “inevitable” in the conviction that the social reality portrayed exercises a determining influence on the life of an individual. Tayo's plight is the necessary outcome of the oppression of the American Indian. Joe's abuse of Simon is the necessary behavior of a Maori who, brutally beaten himself as a child and deeply thwarted in his life, cannot cure himself of violence. For Tayo and Joe to evade their “fates” is for the novels in which those lives are inscribed to evade the structures of realism.

In that sense, we could argue that Silko and Hulme, in providing their characters with an escape from their narratives, may have devised sentimental evasions, fantasy solutions for problems that cannot be solved in “real life,” but which can be solved literarily by disrupting mimesis, the correspondence of “fiction” to “life.” Violating the reader's sense of verisimilitude and probability, attaching magical “happy endings” to otherwise tragically determined narratives, Silko and Hulme may be evading responsibility for their own plots; as one cynical student put it when my class finished The Bone People, “Well, roll the credits!”

The evasion might be not only sentimental but also political. Ceremony was written toward the end of a time of activism when American Indians, in an effort to call attention to their historic oppression, demonstrated at Wounded Knee Battlefield, occupied Alcatraz Island, and called for the restoration of traditional salmon fishing rights in the Columbia River. Hulme's novel, written a few years later, coincided with a Maori nationalist movement that led to some parliamentary reforms but has otherwise polarized New Zealand society. Both novels, by dramatizing the awakening of a traditional spirituality and by portraying characters who heal themselves by rejecting conflict, may be advocating quietism and avoiding the threatening but potentially more effective arena of political action, an arena avoided by both authors.

In his study of Black nationalism in American literature, Larry Neal gives ethnic nationalism and the recovery of traditional culture a classic formulation: “A group withdraws into itself and labels the historically oppressive culture as the enemy. … The nation or group feels that its social oppression is inextricably tied with the destruction of its traditional culture” (782). To recover an aspect of the suppressed culture—even as fantasy—can be an act not only of revival but of subversion, a way of reifying the oppressed group's sense of separateness and entitlement.

It is not easy, even in fantasy (or perhaps we should say especially in fantasy), to escape from the ideological pitfalls inherent in the postcolonial situation. In Manichean Aesthetics, his study of the literature of African colonialism, Abdul JanMohammed has written of the double binds of assimilation: for the native to choose the traditional culture is to doom himself to remain in “a calcified society whose momentum has been checked by colonization.” On the other hand, to choose assimilation is to be “trapped in a form of historical catalepsy” in which his own culture has been replaced by the colonizers (5). The literature of postcolonialism is a literature of marginality and liminality, portraying characters caught between one culture and another.

JanMohammed's title is taken from a passage in Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, in which the double binds are moral, almost metaphysical. Fanon argues that the colonizer, in order to justify his conquest of an indigenous people, constructs a Manichean world-view in which the native is perceived as “a sort of quintessence of evil. … The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values.” For Fanon, then, the recovery of a traditional spiritual culture is a way of defeating that Manichean polarization. In the process, however, there is the risk of a counter-Manicheanism in which “to the theory of the absolute evil of the native the theory of the absolute evil of the settler replies” (41 and 93; cited by JanMohammed 4). Both Silko and Hulme, in their equivocations and evasions, may be trying to slip the double binds of assimilation and to avoid a counter-Manicheanism that could be the unhappy effect of the theme of the recovery of the traditional culture. To forestall this counter-Manicheanism, both authors invent protagonists of mixed racial origin; and significantly, both construct alternative versions of the traditional myths.

Tayo's illegitimacy is shameful to his aunt, who sees in his hazel eyes the sign not only of miscegenation but also of her sister's promiscuity. Taunted by his reservation schoolmates and continuously held inferior to his full-blooded cousin Rocky, Tayo ironically has a clearer appreciation of the importance of native ritual than his contemporaries. For Aunty, who has become a middle-class Christian, Rocky the college-bound football hero represents a dream to escape from reservation life into mainstream America. When Tayo returns alive from the war that has claimed Rocky, he has the terrible feeling that “It was him, Tayo, who had died, but somehow there had been a mistake with the corpses, and somehow his was still unburied” (28). In spite of his illegitimacy the halfbreed Tayo, tutored by the part-Mexican Betonie, represents the true hope of his people.

Betonie becomes the spokesman for Silko's critique of both assimilation and of separatism. The traditional ceremonies of the Pueblo healer Ku'oosh will not cure the sickness Tayo carries. Only when he encounters Betonie can a healing ceremony be devised. For Betonie, the old ceremonies must change: “… after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps our ceremonies strong” (126).

In Betonie's hogan a litter of calendars and telephone books suggests the multiplicity of lives that must be incorporated into a unified vision to combat “the witchery,” which Betonie specifically defines as Fanon's “counter-Manicheanism”:

They want us to believe all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But white people are only tools that the witchery manipulates; and I tell you, we can deal with white people, with their machines and their beliefs. We can because we invented white people; it was Indian witchery that invented white people in the first place. (132)

To Betonie, the world brought by the white people is profoundly evil. Whites hated the land, hated life; in their effort to master it they destroyed it. And their technology threatens to destroy the world:

Caves across the ocean
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.
Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them. (135)

The evil of the white people is powerful; the responsibility for combatting it is an Indian responsibility, but to combat evil through violence is to succumb to it and be lost. The key moment for Tayo—the conclusion of his ceremony—is when he refuses to use violence.

In The Bone People, as in Ceremony, the mixed ancestry of the protagonist is emphasized. Kerewin is only part Maori by blood, but like Tayo, the native part of her is the deepest:

“It's very strange, but whereas by blood, flesh and inheritance, I am but an eighth Maori, by heart, spirit, and inclination, I feel all Maori.” She looked down into the drink, “I used to. Now it feels like the best part of me has got lost in the way I live.” (61-62)

Though many New Zealanders can claim mixed ancestry, Hulme stresses Kerewin's marginality in other ways—her solitude, the tragic break with her family that has led to the failure of her art. Kerewin's sexuality is also marginal:

“… I've never been attracted to men. Or women. Or anything else. It's difficult to explain, and nobody has ever believed it when I have tried to explain, but while I have an apparently normal female body, I don't have any sexual urge or appetite. I think I am a neuter.” (266)

Hulme stresses Kerewin's androgyny. Physically powerful, she smokes cigars, performs hard physical labor when the occasion warrants it, and dominates the few relationships she enters. Trained in the combat skills if not the spiritual discipline of aikido, she intervenes in Joe's violence toward Simon violently. She beats Joe to insensibility; and having thereby established her dominance over him, she makes him promise never to beat Simon again without her permission, a permission which, tragically, she gives.

At a public reading of her work at Montclair State College in May 1987, Hulme remarked that violence against children is a pervasive social problem in New Zealand, among Maoris and Pakeha (white New Zealanders) alike, and that she had written The Bone People in part to draw attention to it. In this culture of violence, the key to personal redemption for both Joe and Kerewin is the renunciation of violence. The Maori society discovered by the Europeans who colonized New Zealand was itself exceptionally violent, with ritual cannibalism and continual bloody warfare among rival clans and kingdoms. To heal her characters through a recovery of Maori spirituality, Hulme, like Silko, must create an alternative narrative of Maori culture.

The kaumatua, an old man with facial tattoos inscribed in a pattern not seen for hundreds of years, is, like Betonie in Ceremony, the key to Joe's healing and to the recovery of a lost spirituality. Known in his neighborhood as “the last of the cannibals,” he tells Joe of his relationship with his grandmother, who urged him to eat of her flesh when she died. Unable to do that, he took over her life's work, the guardianship of the sacred stone. In describing to Joe the nature of the spirit he guards, he, like Betonie, is the spokesman for the author's revision of traditional history:

I was taught that it was the old people's belief that this country, and our people, are different and special. That something very great had allied itself with some of us, had given itself to us. But we changed. We ceased to nurture the land. We fought among ourselves. We were overcome by those white people in their hordes. We were broken and diminished. We forgot what we could have been, that Aotearoa was the shining land. Maybe it will be again … be that as it will, that thing that allied itself to us is still here. I take care of it, because it sleeps now. It retired into itself when the world changed, when the people changed. (364)

The “sleeping god” to whom the kaumatua has dedicated his life is the spirit of a powerful, nonviolent spirituality that was debased, not only by the Europeans but also by the original Polynesian settlers who became the Maoris. If this “mauriora” were to awaken, an entirely new society, constructed on principles even more ancient than those of the Maoris, would be formed.

When, after the kaumatua's death, Joe brings the stone that holds the mauriora to Kerewin's property in Whangaroa, it sinks deep into the earth. The spiral house Kerewin builds there, and the family relationship that is established among the white child and the two Maoris, represent not only their triumph over their own personal demons but also the germ of a new society, neither Pakeha nor Maori, whose spirituality is based on the mauriora life-energy, now grounded in the land and in its people. The power has awakened:

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 growing and great.

Together, all together, they are the instruments of change. (4)

In both novels the central characters will become leaders of a revitalized society, one that embraces traditional spirituality but that does not seek the counter-Manicheanism of nationalism. The ideological project of the novels is not to overturn the white culture but to transform it. In the process, realism as a literary mode of representation has been transformed.

These speculations have led us from a consideration of the technical disruptions of realism into a discussion of the political stance of the novels. Yet we have not really digressed; realism is intrinsically ideological. Barthes argues that realism is “unhealthy” because it denies that language is socially constructed (Eagleton 135). Its claim that it is natural and that it offers the only way to view the world is totalitarian and hegemonic, an esthetic equivalent of colonialism. The gods reawaken: Silko and Hulme disrupt “unhealthy” realism in order to heal their characters, just as they challenge the narrative of colonial oppression in order to offer an alternative narrative of entitlement.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image-Music-Text: Roland Barthes. Ed. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977.

———. S/Z. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970.

Derrida, Jacques. “Living on: Border Lines.” Deconstruction and Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom, et al. New York: Seabury, 1979.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

Eigner, Edward. The Metaphysical Novel in England and America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Seabury, 1979.

Hulme, Keri. The Bone People. 1984. New York: Viking/Penguin, 1986.

JanMohammed, Abdul. Manichean Aesthetics. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1983.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Neal, Larry. “The Black Contribution to American Letters.” The Black American Reference Book. Ed. Mabel Smythe. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1976.

Prendergrast, Christopher. The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendahl, Nerval, Flaubert. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.

Swan, Edith. “Healing via the Sunwise Cycle in Silko's Ceremony.” American Indian Quarterly 12.4 (1988), 313-28.

———. “Laguna Symbolic Geography and Silko's Ceremony.” American Indian Quarterly 12.3 (1988), 229-49.

Giovanna Covi (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6180

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 was initially rejected by three established New Zealand publishers before Spiral, a small feminist collective formed specifically for the purpose, published it. Promoted as a feminist text by a Maori writer, the book enjoyed surprising commercial success. It was first reprinted and then issued in a second edition, this time with the cooperation of a mainstream publisher; it was subsequently published in the United States and Great Britain.1 Along the way, Hulme's novel was honored with several literary prizes.2

However, this attention was short-lived, and six years after its publication, the responses to The Bone People still amount to little more than a handful of reviews. In order to understand the scarce interest of literary critics, I think it is helpful to reconsider the circumstances which shaped its initial success.

First, it must be pointed out that of the three publishers who turned down the novel, one was a feminist who thought it was insufficiently feminist for her list and another was a woman publisher who thought it needed more work.3 Evidently, there was something else at stake other than traditional patriarchal bias against a feminist text. It seems that a certain institutionalized feminism was also in the position to dictate its own “correct line.” In fact, even those critics favorable to The Bone People have shown an uneasiness with the characters' indeterminate or irrelevant gender; Susan Ash, for example, concludes her appraisal of the novel by observing that a “belief in the isolate self … goes beyond Hulme's desire to subvert gender roles.”4

Another important point is that The Bone People appeared at a time when there were great expectations for the consummate New Zealand novel. But although the author emphasizes her one-eighth Maori ancestry, the book turned out to be no vindication of a lost, idealized Maoritanga. Neither is it the glorification of a dominant Pakeha culture that is at last distinct from the European tradition. Rather, the novel addresses the issue of New Zealand's mixed culture, which has led C. K. Stead to complain that it is “a novel by a Pakeha which has won an award intended for a Maori.”5 This cultural complexity is disturbing, “disconcerting the reader's expectations”—as Susan Braidy has remarked—because the work shows “the difficulty of expressing or achieving a national voice,” and the artist's “national identity … is confused, diffused and derivative.” This reviewer goes on to lament the presence of an “uneasy blend of two cultures”: a “paradox,” in her view, that “produces a lack of focus” and “a lame ending,” and she shows—by way of acrobatically jumping out of the novel and into the nation for which the former should allegedly stand—that, “New Zealand still has some spiritual growing-up to do.”6

Under these conditions, The Bone People initially appealed to critics that were likely to become either frustrated (traditional feminists) or infuriated (kiwi chauvinists) by it, thereby demonstrating the validity of the Vietnamese American critic Trinh T. Minh-ha's trenchant observation that: “Imputing race or sex to the creative act has long been a means by which the literary establishment cheapens and discredits the achievements of non-mainstream women writers.”7 No doubt these remarks apply to nationality as well.

I first became intrigued by The Bone People while searching for contemporary texts that challenged both the specification of the writer as historical subject and the effacement of race and gender in the name of textual technicalities. I am interested in interrogating the new canons—“postmodern,” “ethnic” and “feminist”—and assessing them in relation to their theoretical precepts. My expectations are thus quite different—seeking to establish correspondences rather than lines of separation—and my fascination with The Bone People persists.

I wish to stress that I approach Hulme's work from a comparative angle, as part of a project which focuses on experimental women writers and aims to show, on the one hand, that postmodernist fiction must not necessarily be academic, white and male, and on the other that feminist and minority literature should not be confined to a mimetic realm, respectful of phenomenal facts and of the principles of non-contradiction and coherence of the self. I insist on the political significance that the questioning of the binary logic of rational speculation acquires under the various historical, cultural and social circumstances.

I privilege the critique of the opposition form-content as instrumental in bridging the gap between a purely technical, academic textual deconstruction and a militantly substantive, feminist analysis of content. I agree with Edward Said's proposal that critics should move along the “contrapuntal lines of a global analysis,” observing that it is indeed “texts” that “are protean things; they are tied to circumstances and to politics both large and small” and that no single theory can account for them. Therefore, “just as it is true that we cannot read literature by men without also reading literature by women … it is also true that we cannot deal with the literature of the peripheries without also attending to the literature of the metropolitan centres.”8 For instance, I have found it fruitful to read Keri Hulme while listening to the voice of Kathy Acker, a punk writer of Lower East-Side New York.

Postmodernist feminism provides a useful starting point for rethinking the contemporary world of literature without renouncing either the radical politics of culturalism or the experimental playfulness of formalism. I think that “the excluded middle” which Thomas Pynchon's works call for can be retrieved by foregrounding the logical meaning of the discourses of the margins within a context of postmodern linguistic games. Minh-ha insists on the focus on language in these terms:

As focal point of cultural consciousness and social change, writing weaves into language the complex relations of a subject caught between the problems of race and gender and the practice of literature as the very place where social alienation is thwarted differently according to each specific context.9

That The Bone People “weaves into language … complex relations” is precisely the point of my paper. Keri Hulme displays her acute sensitivity for the influence of words on one another in “Tara Diptych”: “I know there are at least 21 meanings for tara … one marvellous 21-joined word, full of diversities—and because I am merely weaver, making senses for sounds—I shall weave anew.”10 But it is equally important to keep in mind Kathy Acker's warning against subsuming everything within language. In her novel The Empire of the Senseless she puts it this way:

Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning.

But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions.11

Wordplay alone is no more than a carnivalesque transgression, just a ruse of the Law, contained within the dominant culture. As Gayatri Spivak has observed, it is for “their substantive revision of, rather than their apparent formal allegiance to, the European avant-grade” that women's texts should draw our attention.12 I would specify that it is the intersection of a critique of patriarchy and a critique of representation that adds significance to the works of such seemingly diverse writers as, for example, Keri Hulme, Angela Carter, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Kathy Acker.

The last, for example, has opened up crucial space for discussing the importance of body language. Acker, whose shoulders are covered with a huge tattoo and who has dedicated one of her novels to her tattooist, has unquestionably given “substance” to the French slogan “body language,” by insisting on the semiotic function of the tattoo, which is “both material and not material and it's also a sign of the outcast,” of outcasts as “people who are beginning to take their own sign-making into their own hands.”13 This deep form of body language is the middle ground in the opposition words-world. It is the language of the subject aware of its being thrown between words and things.

Keri Hulme's novel is a tattoo, a text that, as Nancy Miller would put it, “speaks in tropes and walks in sensible shoes.”14 It shifts continuously from a Realist to a Symbolic mode, from language that is meant to be taken at face value to language that calls for interpretation. The story is minimal—“the smallest smidge of story” according to one unsatisfied reviewer15—deriving from the triangle woman-man-child, where the three characters are first slowly drawn together, then catastrophically thrown apart, only to be united again in their final physical and spiritual rebirth. The plot is neatly organized around a Prologue, four parts of three chapters each, and an Epilogue. With love as its main theme and its miraculous happy ending, it invites a Harlequin Romance-like reading. However, the interaction of the symbolic and realistic plane shows that a splendid degree of complexity is woven into this seemingly simple pattern.

The love story is complicated by the fact that there are no family relations among the three characters, nor any sexual bond between the two adults. And yet there is genuine love, so fundamental as to make it impossible for them to live apart. Moreover, the tragedy that hurtles them towards the brink of destruction is determined apparently by the same love that propels the story to its sentimental happy solution: the brutal violence that Joe persistently perpetrates against the child, with the complicitous non-intervention of Kerewin, does not cancel the fact that they are the only people who truly love and understand, and are in turn loved and understood by Simon. To add social depth, Kerewin is the artist isolated in the Tower and is of mixed Maori-European heritage; Joe is an educated man forced to work in a factory because he is a Maori; Simon is a misfit: the only survivor of a wreck, mute and too young to know his age and parentage, he will turn out to be the son of an Irish hippie. Indeed, The Bone People is structured by identities which are multi-faceted.

Overall the novel is so multi-layered that it might well be cited as exemplary of the postmodernist canon, and not only because it is written in a mode that draws on both the Realist and Modernist traditions, or because it problematizes the unity of the self. If the model of popular romance is certainly there, so are the repeated intertextual references to the production of high culture—from Joycean language games (one example must suffice: Kerewin saying, “o my serendipitous elf, serendipitous self” p. 395), to Surrealist puns (such as the bone people, which means both the bones of the people and the people of the bones—i.e., both ancestors and progenitors) to the circular structure of the book ending with the words “The End—or the Beginning” and opening with a Prologue entitled “The End at the Beginning.”

A closer reading, however, shows that the circular frame is only superficial and functions rather as one of many citations: The Bone People's structure is actually that of the double spiral. As the mythological symbol of the outward-inward, of endless repetition, the spiral could be taken again as a most appropriate postmodernist figure. It represents a moment of extremely tragic or extremely playful self-consciousness of the present, which is understood as a problem of repetition with respect both to the past and to the future. Moreover, this dynamic symbol questions a single reading of an ending that is necessarily open.

Other features situate Hulme's novel among the ranks of postmodernism. Certainly no critic sympathetic to the encyclopedic works of Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth or Vladimir Nabokov would subscribe to the complaint that The Bone People “unsuccessfully … stretch[es] over the length of nearly 500 pages, hoping … [to] become a plot,” or that it is a “simple tale … inflated.”16 In addition, the writing proceeds by fragments of prose woven into poetry (Prologue, pp. 4-5; p. 219), of philosophical speculations (p. 196) interlaced with ejaculatory remarks (p. 12, and note Kerewin's relentless passion for the expression “berloody”), of scientific descriptions (the passage on sea life; p. 125), which echoes the opening chapter of Moby Dick, “Cetology”) beaded into scripted dialogue (the rendering of Kerewin and Simon playing cards; pp. 181-2) and the careful pacing of Simon's thoughts (pp. 236-7)). This collage of styles and genres is augmented by numerous metafictional interventions like, two pages from the end of the last chapter, “we're nearing the end now, soul of the book” (p. 435), or the passage where the artist abandons “the old discipline of mirror and candle … to use image and living light as pointers to the self beyond self” (p. 275), providing a definition of the novel as postmodernist. In addition, there are clear instances of mise en abime provided by her journal in which the narrative is fully explained and by her own “Book of Godhead” containing “an eclectic range” of writing (p. 329). In other words, the text defies symbolic interpretation because it inevitably provides an explanation of its figurative discourse. If in Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman the footnotes progressively invade the text, in The Bone People they are all incorporated in the narrative.

As one might expect in this context, the narrative voice is absolutely non-authorial. Judith Dale has observed that most readers incorrectly remember the novel as written by an autobiographical speaking-I.17 Chris Prentice has pointedly examined a number of passages in which the narrative moves almost imperceptibly from third to first person, or in which the third person narrative is unmistakeably Kerewin's voice, a voice which often pervades also the consciousness of Joe and Simon.18 This fluctuation in narrative voice effectively questions the subject ‘Author’.

Moreover, the superwoman-like qualities of Kerewin, who “has it all,” are meant to leave her “dissatisfied, because ‘all’ in the Pakeha sense is not enough.”19 In this way The Bone People deconstructs one of the “most powerful fantasies of Western culture”—“the self-sufficient individual,” modelled on Robinson Crusoe.20 Fee recalls the words of the kaumatua (elder)—“It is horrifyingly easy to make people perform as you wish, if they think they are in control all the time” (p. 356)—as evidence that Holmes’ powerful individualism is eventually undermined, together with the narrator's control over her material.

Finally, since the anti-detective is a featured character in many postmodernist fictions, it is not surprising that we find a narrator-protagonist named “Holmes” engaged in a search which results only in more mystery and questions; in the process of her investigation, Kerewin ironically addresses herself, commenting on her last name: “what clues do we have, Sherlock? (Hey, that's good! why haven't I thought of it before?)” (p. 95).

Almost a textbook of postmodernist fictional strategies, the novel is also a striking example of the foregrounding of language. The title, a Maori pun meaning both ancestors and progenitors, calls attention to the unreliable nature of words. In addition, there are many Maori words and expressions in the text, which—as Dieter Riemenschneider has observed in his paper in this collection—show that English cannot absorb all the difference of ethnic minorities; the Maori words emphasize their own untranslatability. Maryanne Dever has argued that this double-voiced text “challenges the dominant Eurocentric version of reality” and “offers an alternative voice, one that enfranchises multiplicity and undermines the authority of imperialism's homogenising linguistic imperative.”21 This is apparent in the final scene of “commensalism,” which recovers the marginalized selves “through tolerance”—an acceptance underlined “by a noticeable shift in viewpoint from the ‘I’ of Pakeha discourse to the ‘we’ of Maori discourse, as the three prepare for their reunion and the possibility of some shared future.”22

But most pertinent to my argument, The Bone People also displays a metalinguistic treatment of the deeper significance of language. This is precisely the site where a thematization of sexual difference shows the limitations of the concept gender—one of the “critical terms for literary study” in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin's recent book of that title, as well as the increasingly official referent of American feminist theory. I am convinced, along with Teresa de Lauretis, Judith Butler and Susan Suleiman among others, that a working tool resting on two exclusionary categories is inevitably totalizing. Like other binary oppositions, the concept of gender perpetuates a symmetrical order which sees male and female as oppositional and complementary, trapping them within the obligatory choice between nature and culture.

Etymologically linked to a rigid biological dualism by way of its kinship with the word “generate,” gender invariably reduces and essentializes sexuality—complex, contradictory, changing and unlimited like desire—to a biological relationship between the two sexes. It has also polarized criticism into two ideologically opposed camps, with the proponents of the term denying that it depends upon anatomy, as does Myra Jehlen when she claims that “a good definition of gender” is “‘the business facts’ of sexual identity.”23 In order to escape the risk of anatomical determinism, the body seemingly has to be denied altogether. Certainly the inclusion of grammar in its semantic field—i.e., of the possibility of an arbitrary free play within a purely linguistic context—shows that the other side of the coin of sexual dichotomy is the erasure of the body in an idealized, androgynous levelling of difference. The opponents of the term, on the other hand, reject the intrinsic dualism of gender as indicative of biologism and essentialism. A new journal is entitled Genders and proposes to “get beyond the number two” and move toward a “dizzy accumulation of narratives.”24

I think that it is the neo-feminist concept of sexual difference that should be proposed in the plural instead. Etymologically “sex” means “to be divided;” thus a study of sexual differences focuses on the plurality of differences which, according to the socio-political evaluation of sexuality in a specific context, concur to separate, to divide, to make a difference. This way the polarization is not predetermined by biology and does not risk formulating masculine and feminine as pure essences. According to circumstances, “sexual differences” may allow for the pertinence of the hetero-homosexual over the male-female opposition, letting difference shift to create new differences—differences that are not necessarily opposite and complementary—rather than pinning it down to the fixed identity of the gendered subject.

In relation to literature, gender is a useful analytical category only for those texts that deconstruct the traditional division of sexual roles, such as Robert Coover's Spanking the Maid, in which male and female roles are continuously and parodically inverted. But when a text, like the works of Kathy Acker and Keri Hulme, forces the boundaries of language and reality beyond the deconstruction of logocentrism and towards the rethinking of a new episteme, it metamorphoses gender into sexual differences. When the recurrent question is “who am I in relation to others?” rather than the fixed identity's obsessive “who am I?,” then language strives to include both the nameable and the unnameable, to enunciate multiplicity and contradiction simultaneously, to say the sign and the body, like a tattoo.

The Bone People is a tattoo. It has a certain association with criminality for its transgressive subject matter—the violence against a child. This theme has certainly disturbed Stead, among others, who concludes his article declaring that “the line between charity and imaginative complicity is very fine indeed.”25 Dever is more tolerant; she interprets the violence within the text “as a further frustrated effort to communicate,” and calls it “an extreme or perverse form of lingua franca.”26 The primitive, rudimentary communication of a lingua franca, however, cannot account for the spiritual and emotional complexity of human relationships: Kerewin Holmes would say that it is like reducing Aikido—“the way to reconcile the world, to make human beings one family”—to “a technique to fight with” (p. 199). Margery Fee states that by having Simon's body brutally mutilated, Keri Hulme critiques “Western society's smug faith in technique and prowess as a solution to problems.”27

But The Bone People is a tattoo also because it thematizes language in its strict relationship to the body. The characters are first encountered in three short sections written in the present. They are nameless “people” referred to as “instruments of change” (p. 4): a he-“singer” for whom “silence is music,” and who is “holding a hand out to [the people]” (p. 3); a second “he” whose “mind is full of change and curve and hope,” and who is also holding out his hand which “is gently taken” (p. 3); and a “she” who “knows a lot … is eager to know more,” and “sings as she takes their hands” (p. 3). This introduction is followed by three longer sections, each of which begins in the past and moves into the present. These illustrate the characters' “beginnings”: the first lived in “darkness” and “fear,” and has “in the memory … words, different words” (p. 5); the second inhabited “tension” and “despair,” and is gnawed by the words of his dead wife, who foretold his destiny (p. 6); the third was imprisoned in the “frivolity” of her self-isolation, a Tower in which she was initially “delighted with the pre-eminence of her art” but which “became an abyss … encompassed by a wall … with only [her] brainy nails to tear it down,” and she “cannot do it” (p. 7). In different ways, they have all been prisoners of language.

Kerewin is the artist who inhabits the Symbolic. Precisely because she believes in the subordination of the Symbolic to the Real, she has reduced the latter to the former: the Tower of her art is literarily and literally a tower; she is the letter: not accidentally when the crisis precipitates, she packs the Concise Oxford Dictionary for her journey away from the Tower; and even her alter-ego, Snark, is a literary creature, invented by the master of nonsense Lewis Carroll. Her unitary self can be addressed in the mirror as she does throughout the first chapter of the third part. Moreover, she is a “neuter,” sexually an androgyne. “She knows a lot,” but she knows by analogy—her awareness is representational and her cognitive value is that of a figure of speech.

Simon and Joe belong to the Real and the Imaginary spheres, respectively. The child is uncanny and mysterious and the man is the expression of free sexuality and sexual orientation. The union of the three characters—a union they keep striving for—is what I have called “tattoo”: a language which is neither body (the Real) nor sign (the Symbolic), and not even dream (the Imaginary); rather, it is a weaving of all three, “the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change” (p. 4).

This point is fundamental for understanding my critique of gender in relation to language. In fact, the crisis of representation has precipitated a reconsideration of the relationship between time and space, which in turn has entailed a re-thinking of sexual difference.28 Within the temporality of being, Kerewin's knowledge shows its limitations. So if Kerewin “knows a lot,” she is also “eager to know more”—to learn a new type of knowledge, one that does not depend on a hierarchical relationship between language and the world as well as one that does not erase the difference between the two. Such fundamental knowledge Kathy Acker calls “sympathy.” In her “Introduction” to Boxcar Bertha, the autobiography of a hobo who “felt for other humans to the extent that she had to know them, become them, a whore, homeless, willing to suffer, to learn,” Acker states: “Such knowledge, such human knowledge is complex.”29

Kerewin's development of “human knowledge” is triggered by Simon's invasion of her tower. He appears in the library—where else? one might ask—and she promptly reduces him to “a weird saint in a stained gold window” (p. 16), while she is fascinated by the pendant with address, name and the words “cannot speak” that he wears around his neck (p. 17). In her library, the boy becomes an icon—not accidentally referred to as “it”—and this section of Chapter One ends with her journal entry: just “today” without a date, above a drawing of the boy's sandal done “with careful realism” (p. 36). Simon—the uncanny Real—has been allegorically fixed and metonymically reduced to a dead letter by the artist.

Kerewin is fascinated by Simon: she is eager to “read,” to interpret, to comprehend him. On the contrary, she denies any interest in Joe; when she first sees him in a bar, she disregards him as “a poor effing fella … short of words” (p. 12); only after receiving a letter from him, she decides to meet him, and here is her reaction: “the pink paper plus the stream of fucks becomes a roaring ribald laugh in her mind” (p. 46). But Kerewin's symbolic order in which words metaphorically substitute for things—the Tower for the world—and Joe's imaginary metonymical displacement of things for words—a blow on the child's body for an explanation—are two sides of the same coin of the unconscious which, according to Lacan, is structured like a language. So Kerewin's tower is real because it imposes its symbolic order upon the world, in the same way that Joe's blows upon Simon's body are identical to the words he should rather use to explain his point. He is the signifier of desire and it shouldn't surprise us that “his mother named him true”—his Maori name means “the bitterhearted man” (p. 323). It shouldn't surprise us also that he is the only person who truly loves Simon, despite the fact that he nearly kills him. His love, together with Kerewin's fascination for the boy, show the dependence of the unconscious from the tangible but ungraspable world of the signifieds.

Simon is the Real, which the Symbolic and Imaginary depend upon and which eludes their comprehension. Not accidentally he points out the arbitrariness between signifiers and signifieds. Like Ishmael he never “is” his name: “Hana called him Simon Peter” (p. 87) but Joe's parents use another name, Haimona/Himi. Moreover, “he has called himself … Clare, Claro. … He doesn't know if that's his name, and he's never told it to anyone. He has a feeling if he does, he'll die” (p. 112)—he'll die indeed if he allows the symbolic reduction of himself to a rhetorical figure. So when Kerewin teaches him the names of the various sea creatures, he thinks: “knowing names is nice, but it don't mean much. … Names aren't much. The things are,” and with an air of ironic superiority he laughs “secretly at himself” because he knows he “can't say names.” But he also tries to expose Kerewin's power when he “blows into her ear” to show that “it was just air.” To this “just air” that language is, he opposes the factuality of his hands—the hands of sign language and the hands of touching, of reaching for other people communicating with them without objectifying them: “my hand was more real, see?” (p. 126). But Kerewin “hates touching” (p. 174) and Joe, who doesn't, who kisses and hugs him, also brutally beats him with his hands, adding new scars on a body already marked by past abuse (p. 328).

Kerewin hurts Simon with her words in a similar way: “She can't touch him physically so she is beating him with her voice” (p. 307), and Joe later “recalls the wordless choking of pain the child had made … while Kerewin hit him with words” (p. 326). Simon's violated body and mind have a counterpart in the broken message he leaves on the beach—“CLARE WAS HE” (p. 435)—, because he doesn't have enough stones to finish the letters of the third word (p. 256). This episode marks the point in the novel at which the tragedy approaches its climax and Simon's re-birth entails moving from his initial scepticism towards language (p. 238), then through a protest in which he rejects language altogether (p. 395), and finally to an acceptance of its inevitability.

In the hospital, Simon decides to stop communicating, to let his pad “gather dust,” when he desperately becomes aware of his separation from Joe and Kerewin (p. 395). He realizes the interdependence that unites the three of them, and although “he doesn't know the words for what they are,” he knows that “they only make sense together” (p. 395). All three characters experience rebirth with the assistance of a special healer. Simon's helper is significantly called Dr. Sinclair, a combination of the child's two names (p. 397). This serves to teach Simon that language is inevitable—inadequate but inevitable. At this point, also his chance name “Simon Peter” can acquire some significance, when Joe recovers the photo of the child's father and discovers that he was Timon Padraic (p. 378). After his re-birth, words start meaning a lot more (p. 408) and he begins to enjoy puns and double entendres (p. 408). He has made his move towards the other two characters.

Joe's helper is an elder Maori covered by a tattoo that is “a complicated maze of spirals” (p. 346). He will die in order to save Joe, leaving only a symbol of his tattoo on the paper of his will. Joe's encounter with his healer forces him to understand the meaning of figures and signs and consequently their relationship to and difference from the body. In fact, it is only after he has jumped off the rock thinking of suicide as “a sign” (p. 341), that Joe is finally capable of taking language as something serious and meaningful. He shows his newly-acquired awareness by carving boundary markers representing the people he cares for and putting them on the land received from his healer (p. 383).

Kerewin is assisted by a nameless person of indeterminate age, sex, race and accent (p. 424). Her rebirth entails a temporary abandoning of language and immersion in the body. This is clear when she gives Joe one of her jades, pointing out it has no name (p. 313); when she sends her guitar to her family without any letter to accompany it (p. 419); and when she packs the bunch of things that Simon had “stolen” from her house and sends them to him “care of the public hospital,” but doesn't send a letter with them (p. 323). Moreover, after 400 pages of fancy language games, this is what we read:

An odd little set of thesaurisms kept running versewise through
her head:
That's all the whole thing matters eh, as this snowflake world
splinters and glistens. Gimcrack trumpery
in gold and azure and scarlet and glory silver … becasually nerthing
is … (pp. 417-18)

A “because” turned into “becasually” puts under discussion the whole logic of cause and effect upon which the symmetry of a complementary opposition between the sexes also depends. It follows unsurprisingly, then, that “rebuilding the Maori hall … in spiral fashion [seemed] the straight-forward thing to do” (p. 431).

Thus, weaving becomes naturally the final image in The Bone People. Kerewin says of herself that she is now “weaving webs” (p. 431) and the vocabulary describing the scene in which the three characters come together repeats such words as weaving, reeling, spinning, braiding (p. 445). To reinforce this feminine image is Kerewin's “wordless embrace” with her mother (p. 434). This is no triumph of a feminine language over the superiority of a phallic order, however: no victory of a fluid, silent mother tongue such as that theorized by the feminist thinking engaged in defining the essence of “woman.” In fact, at the same time that Kerewin is “throwing away sparks of words” (p. 445), she is also announcing her decision to finally take responsibility and give her name to Simon, “as umbrella, as shelter, not as binding. No sentiment about it … just good legal sense” (p. 444).

“On the funeral pyre of our dead selves,” saying: “I place a paper replica of what is real. Ghost, follow the other ghosts … and if we ever meet in a dimension where dreams are real, I shall embrace you and we shall laugh, at last” (p. 437). This is a clear critique of patriarchal logocentrism that widens the boundaries of Lacanian theory. And Kerewin's is certainly a new name of the father—the feminine father of a child adopted together with his own adoptive father (and mother too, since he was widowed). There is no space for the closed family unit in the double spiral hall weaving new human relationships at the end of the novel. Just as The Bone People exposes the fiction of the supremacy of the Phallus by dismantling Kerewin's Tower, it also shows the devastating consequences of an imaginary identity between words and acts by making Joe the main culprit. Moreover, the novel emphasizes the independence of cultural roles from anatomical difference by assigning a woman to the Symbolic sphere and a man to the Imaginary. But most importantly, Hulme's text moves beyond the simple reversal of gender roles. By inserting the complex and ungraspable element of sexual orientation and by adding the figure of the child to a difficult relationship between a man and a woman, The Bone People exposes the limitations of absolutist categories such as gender.

To borrow once again from Acker, The Bone People does not address the question, “why do women whore?” but the more interesting question, “why do they give their money to pimps?” The interesting question that this novel poses is not whether Hulme is “really” a Maori or a feminist writer, but rather how established categories of critical interpretation are disrupted by experimental writers from the periphery.


  1. The novel was published and reprinted in 1984 by Spiral, and a second edition was published in New Zealand and London the following year in conjunction with Hodder & Stoughton. Louisiana State University Press published the first U.S. edition in 1985; Pan published a paperback edition in 1986. Page references of the U.K. and U.S. editions are identical.

  2. These included the New Zealand Book Award (1984), the Pegasus Prize for Literature (1984) and the Booker-McConnel Prize for Fiction (1985).

  3. C. K. Stead, “Keri Hulme's The Bone People, and the Pegasus Award for Literature,” Ariel, 16.4 (1985), 102.

  4. Susan Ash, “The Bone People after Te Kaihau,” World Literature Written in English, 29.1 (1989), 134.

  5. C. K. Stead, op. cit., p. 104.

  6. Susan Braidy, letter, London Review of Books, 19 December 1985, 5.

  7. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 6.

  8. Edward Said, “Figures, Configurations, Transfigurations,” Race and Class, 32.1 (1990), 15.

  9. Trinh T. Minh-ha, op. cit., p. 6.

  10. Keri Hulme, The Bone People, 1984. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. London: Spiral in association with Hodder and Soughton, 1985. Rprt. London: Picador, 1986), p. 11, Further references in the text.

  11. Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless (New York: Grove, 1988), p. 134.

  12. Gayatri C. Spivak, “French Feminism in an International Frame,” Yale French Studies, 62(1981), 167.

  13. Ellen G. Friedman, “A Conversation with Kathy Acker,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 9.3 (1989), 18.

  14. Nancy K. Miller, “The Text's Heroine: A Feminist Critic and Her Fictions,” Diacritics, 12.2 (1982), 53.

  15. Rev. of The Bone People, by Keri Hulme, Kirkus Reviews September, 1985, 967.

  16. See ibid., p.967 and Angela Huth, “The Booker Club,” The Listener, 25 October 1985, p. 33.

  17. See Judith Dale, “The Bone People: (Not) Having It Both Ways,” Landfall: New Zealand Quarterly, 156 (December 1985), 413-28.

  18. See Chris Prentice, “Re-Writing their Stories, Renaming Themselves: Post-colonialism and Feminism in the Fictions of Keri Hulme and Audrey Thomas.” Span: Newsletter of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 23 (September 1986), pp. 68-80.

  19. Margery Fee, “Why C. K. Stead Didn't Like Keri Hulme's The Bone People: Who Can Write as Other?” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada, 1 (Spring 1989), 20.

  20. Margery Fee, ibid., p.21.

  21. Maryanne Dever, “Violence as Lingua Franca: Keri Hulme's The Bone People,” World Literature Written in English, 29.2 (1989), 25.

  22. Maryanne Dever, ibid., p.34.

  23. Myra Jehlen, “Gender,” in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 272.

  24. Susan Bordo, “Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender/Skepticism,” in: Linda J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism! Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1990), p.134.

  25. C. K. Stead, op. cit., p. 108.

  26. Maryanne Dever, op. cit., p. 31.

  27. Margery Fee, op. cit., p. 25.

  28. The crisis of spatial representation has affected the category “woman,” which in our culture has existed only as a text (Lacan). But now that the subject has been thrown into temporality (Heidegger), knowledge and language are no longer interdependent (Foucault), sexual difference is subject to the same revision that the relationship time-space is undergoing (Irigaray). Beyond the realistic conception of representation, sexuality might find a new expression, as Toril Moi contends. Certainly a novel that opens with a woman artist suffering this kind of crisis and moving beyond it, promises a re-thinking of sexual difference within the temporality of being.

  29. Kathy Acker, Introduction, Boxcar Bertha: An Autobiography (New York: Amok Press, 1988), p. xii.

Bernard Gadd (review date Spring 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

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” captures some of her concerns here.) The collection ends with “Some Wine Songs,” considerably lighter and indeed so far out of kilter with the major poetry as to suggest that the publishers wanted to bulk up the collection.

Hulme employs an array of familiar contemporary techniques of impressionistic linguistic collage: the swift glides from place to place, time to time, register to register, language to language (Maori to English), focus to focus, source to source of imagery, allusion, and symbolism. She says in a prologue note: “Words mean / precisely what you want to hear them say / exactly / what you see in them.” Nevertheless, this is not poststructural, postmodernist, and certainly not “language” poetry. Hulme's work is too much grounded in a specific place, New Zealand's remote Okarito Lagoon territory (whose image is suggested by the author's cover design), and in a particular people, the Maori. Her purpose too is very different. In the main poems a sustained voice meditates on death, life, their interactions—predatory or otherwise—in renewal, and on a sense both of belonging to nature and of the otherness of nature learned through life in this place and through belonging to this people. The poetry expresses her sense of the discovery, or perhaps the fashioning of, herself, and the overall tone is more earnest, more zestful than witty or verbally gaming.

For those interested to hunt them, there are interconnections with The Bone People, even an apparent direct reference to a reader's response; but I think these are more the result of the similarities of the source materials than of a deliberate literary playfulness. Occasionally the use of Maori strikes the ear as no more than a verbal flourish. Sometimes abrupt register switches jar pointlessly. Sometimes Hulme falls into cliché, platitude, or truism. Sometimes the language is a little self-conscious, striving to make its effects. Sometimes the adjectives seem to crowd in. Sometimes the use of Maori cultural allusions may puzzle the uninitiated reader. Still, the voice encourages us to accept all these on our literary voyage with her across a persistent groundswell of romanticism, past wry reflection, the jokey, the intriguing, the beautiful, the bitter, the reminiscent, and a score of other moods and days. In the major poem the olearia tree itself is sighted again and again, affirming each time its central role as potent natural symbol.

The end of the entire collection is celebration: “Ah, sweet life, We share it / with cancers and tapeworms / with bread moulds and string beans / and great white sharks.” With this work Keri Hulme at last emerges as a notable New Zealand poet.

Additional coverage of Hulme's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 125 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 69.


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