They traveled lightly, the Gillayleys, not loaded down with trivia. But then, in the end we all travel very lightly indeed. Nothing to carry more substantial than memories…and maybe that’s the heaviest baggage of all… -From The Bone People, page 323-
Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize winning first novel – The Bone People – is a searing, brutal novel about love, violence, language, and mystery. Set in the bleak environment of a New Zealand sea town, the novel introduces three damaged characters all seeking something more in their lives, all having suffered loss and trauma.
Kerewin Holmes, a frustrated artist who turns to alcohol for solace, has built herself a tower – a self-imposed prison, where she can hide from the world and stave off the pain of her family’s rejection. She holds tenaciously to her philosophy of life: “…To care for anything deeply is to invite disaster.”
Joe also chooses alcohol to warm his soul. He has lost his wife and is trying to raise his adopted son Simon alone. Joe’s love for Simon is a mixture of tenderness and brutality.
Simon, perhaps the most heart wrenching character in the book, is a child with a mysterious past. Washed up on shore after a shipwreck and breathed back to life by Joe, Simon is mute, angry and disturbed. These three characters come together in a clash of culture and ambivalence and burn themselves into the heart of the reader.
Hulmes writing is poetic and lyrical, filled with mystical ambiance and beautiful imagery. It ebbs and flows like the sea, building to a terrible climax. At times, feeling battered and exhausted, I wanted to put the book down and not finish it; but each time the words and the story lured me back. There are some beautiful and haunting passages in this novel, such as when Simon gifts Kerewin an amber, gold, turquoise and coral rosary and Kerewin thinks:
Who owned you?
Prayed with you?
Played with you?
What prayers, said, in what moods?
Joy, or grief?
Love, or anger,
-From The Bone People, pages 140-141-
Hulme treats the reader to a great deal of Maori culture, weaving Maori phrases throughout the novel (she also provides their translation in an appendix). The book veers into mystical realism at times, which I believe actually added to the mood and flavor of the story rather than taking away from it.
The Bone People is not an easy read – it is disturbing and rips at the reader’s heart – but, ultimately its words and imagery, its message about what it means to be human, will linger with the reader long after the last page is turned.