Winner of the 1985 Booker Prize, The Bone People is a staggering literary novel. Keri Hulme's long and somewhat experimental novel focuses on an idiosyncratic family-by-choice in roughly modern-day rural New Zealand. Kerewin is an artist, solitary and self-sufficient; she lives in a tower and spends her days alone and working. One day, out fishing, she finds an enigmatic, silent little blond boy named Simon. They form a bond. She meets his father, Joe, a big man with a temper and a fondness for drink, which he shares with Kerewin. But Joe isn't exactly Simon's father, and his story, and the story of his history and his future with Joe make up the plot of this unusual novel.
Hulme's writing is dense and poetic, and her characters live in close contact with the natural world:
And here I am, balanced on the salt-stained rim, watching minute navyblue fringes, gill-fingers of tubeworms, fan the water...put the shadow of a finger near them, and they flick outasight. Eyes in your lungs...neat. The three-fin blenny swirls by.. tena koe, fish. A small bunch of scarlet and gold anemones furl and unfurl their arms, graceful petals, slow and lethal...tickle tickle, and they turn into unterestinglumps of brownish jelly...haven't made sea-anemone soup for a awhile, whaddabout it?...The narrative structure is basically linear apart from the first chapter but Hulme changes the point of view often, gives her characters extended internal monologues and peppers their language with Maori words and phrases (both Kerewin and Joe have Maori background). It becomes obvious that Simon and Joe's relationship is not what it seems, and that Simon is being horribly abused. Hulme draws Joe's psychology so realistically that the reader can see how it happens, too. And Simon has troubles of his own, as we learn through his rare moments of internal monologue. Although iconically angelic in appearance, he is a troubled little boy whose troubles only continued when he met Joe and Joe's late wife. Now, ironically, Joe and Kerewin may be the best shot Simon has at a loving family.
Sorting out all those contradictions makes up the demanding work of parsing through this very accomplished and important novel. Hulme creates incredibly rich characters in all three of her leads, even mute Simon. And she sets up a heartbreaking situation out of her characters' complex psychology. She asks the reader some really hard questions about whom it's possible to love, and under what circumstances. Hulme's style means sometimes it's a little hard to know what's going on; I would suggest taking advantage of a cheat sheet if you find yourself having a hard time keeping track of the plot, especially in the latter third of the novel. But I do strongly recommend The Bone People to anyone up for a read that will challenge both intellectually and emotionally.
This book counts toward the 2011 Complete Booker Challenge.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.