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The Bone People

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Title: The Bone People


Author:Keri Hulme (A)

Published: 1984

I picked up The Bone People because of its cover. Yes, this is a trend. Covers are a large part of why I buy books. This particular edition- a penguin ink special- features a black and white maori-tattoo styled design by Pepa Heller, who operates a tattoo parlor in Tauranga, New Zealand. I have a thing for Maori art. I love their greenstone pendants, their traditional facial tattoos, their use of ferns and fishooks into just about everything. I judged this particular book by its cover, and for once it was a good choice.

The Bone People is not a book you can easily put down. If, like me, you read in short allotted increments- like two fifteen minute breaks at your menial temp job- then you’ll find it difficult to stop and return to whatever you were doing. Stylistically, The Bone People is not for everyone. It contains no major car crashes, no intricate government conspiracies. In fact, a large part of the novel follows its three protagonists doing everyday things. If you’re not interested in the true depth of the human condition, or find things like that trite or overdone, then this book is not for you.

The three characters you follow are Kerewin Homes and Joe and Simon Gillayley. Their stories start separately and by the time the book ends they become predictably entangled. A determined graduate student could make all sorts of allusions to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Many words that a trained literati would use as effective whistleblows- communion, for example- appear in text. If you were determined, you could find a Judas, a Lazarus, an Adam and an Eve.  Anyone with a religious bent could take The Bone People and turn it into some kind of massive parable.

If you want to hang out with the holy trinity, that’s your deal. I’d rather stick with these guys.

At five hundred plus pages it’s a dense read, and while the narration is generally third person omniscent (godlike and all knowing, for you laymen) it is limited by who it is following, and by sudden insertions of first person narration. The large gillaley family can be difficult to keep track of, and sometimes threads of the story are lost in the sheer awesome that is certain passages. An example: “She flicks the crystal casing of the suneater. Pretty toy. Pastime. As useful as all my other toys and time-passers. As useful and pointed as myself.”

That was Kerewin, an estranged artist who has lost her art. Of the three, Kerewin is the hardest to grasp characterwise. Her inner dialogue reads remarkably like a true thought process, which is to say only slightly linear and sometimes petering off into another topic altogether. This isn’t for everyone, and if you like your sentences fully fleshed and the direction you’re headed clearly marked, Kerewin’s sections will be a slog.

Despite being set in a realistic New Zealand, the book contains traces of what we’ll call magical realism. True magical realism is a situation in which fantastical things are accepted by the masses as a normal part of life. The parts of The Bone People that contain fantastical things are followed by people who believe in their fantastic nature. There are also people who call those people nuts. Be warned that shit gets real late in the book. If you’re expecting a normal slice of life piece, then these moments are going to trip you up. It could also be said that The Bone People is dated- Kerewin uses a telegram service, and phones people via an operator. In this current time of high tech gadgets it can be a little disconcerting to not see a cell phone mentioned every page. This tells you two things. One, you spend way too much time watching television, and two, there once was a time when communication relied on something other than instantaneous transport. Enjoy it. It won’t detract from the story.

Joe is Maori. While this isn’t Important with that capital I, it is important. The ongoing social conflict between the native Maori and the pakeha, or European Ne Zealanders who immigrated, is definitely touched upon in The Bone People. However, it is not an in your face diatribe on the dying arts of the native peoples of New Zealand, nor is it a lambasting of the Maori for not accepting the steady change of their nation. It follows what I have lovelingly called the Dumbledore Principle- something that is touched upon, is important, but does not define the character (or in this case, the work) as a whole.

Maori legend, family, and art dominates large parts of The Bone People in very subtle ways, like references to gods and an appreciation of greenstone pendents. It is these specific moments that I chose to use as a rallying point against turning The Bone People into a religious allegory- there are few things farther apart in this world than a polytheistic native religion and the judeo-christian rhetoric that has so solidly taken hold of most western writing. You don’t have to be a Maori scholar, but whether you like it or not, this book is going to tell you what for.

There are Maori phrases throughout the story and The Bone People comes with a handy reference in the back, for those of us who didn’t take Maori 101 in high school. If you don’t feel like hunting the words down, it is fairly easy to understand them  in context, which I feel is very important in a well written work.

The Bone People will pull at your sense of empathy. It deals candidly with things that, as a society, we are often taught to ignore or speak of in whispers. The plight of Simon, Kerewin, and Joe effectively deals with broken people and broken things without begging for sympathy or holding a megaphone. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is a difference between sympathy and empathy. As a rule of thumb, when reading The Bone People, if you think, “is that a reference to..?” naturally trailing off because you hesitate to even think of such things, then the answer is yes. Yes, it was.

It could easily be argued that The Bone People doesn’t deserve its ending. If I were more inclined to dive into a full literary analysis, I might go that route myself. However, I didn’t pick up The Bone People to lambaste it as a terrible horrible no good very bad tale with a sugarysweet ending. I feel that everything the triumvirate went through led them to this well deserved finality. Potential christian overtones aside, The Bone People left me feeling satisfied.


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