chilling the bone

The Bone People

The Bone People is a 1984 novel by New Zealand author Keri Hulme. Although this novel is very well known it was not easy to publish. Keri Hulme was turned down by 200 publishing houses before she finally found a small publishing house in New Zealand called Spiral in 1984. In 1985 Spiral collaborated with England publishing house Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title The Bone People draws parallels between Māori, who use bone extensively in art and tools, and the notion of the core or skeleton of a person: in the novel the characters are figuratively stripped to the bone. Also, in the novel, "E nga iwi o nga iwi," p. 395, translates to "O the bones of the people" (where 'bones' stands for ancestors or relations), but it also translates to "O the people of the bones" (i.e. the beginning people, the people who make another people).

Plot summary

The book is divided into two major sections, the first involving the characters interacting, and the second half involving their individual travels. In the first half, 8-year-old Simon shows up at the hermit Kerewin’s tower on a dark and stormy night. Simon is mute and thus is unable to explain his motives. When Simon’s adoptive father Joe comes to collect him in the morning, Kerewin learns their unusual story. Simon was found washed up on the beach years earlier with no memory and very few clues as to his identity. Joe and his wife Hana take in Simon, despite his apparently dark background, and attempt to raise him. However, both Hana and their infant son die soon after, leaving Joe alone to raise the wild boy Simon.

Kerewin finds herself developing a relationship with both the boy and the father, becoming more involved in their lives and stories. However, it gradually becomes clear that Simon is a severely traumatised boy, whose behaviours Joe is unable to cope with. Kerewin eventually finds that, despite a constant and intense love between them, Joe is physically abusing Simon. There are hints that Joe was also abused as a child.

Following a catalyst event, the three are driven violently apart. Simon witnesses a violent death and goes to Kerewin, but she is angry with him for stealing some of her possessions and will not listen. He reacts by kicking in the side of her guitar, a much prized gift from her estranged family, whereupon she throws him out. He then goes to the town and breaks a series of public property windows. When he is returned home by the police, Joe beats him severely, fracturing his skull and breaking his jaw. Simon however has concealed a piece of glass and stabs his father with it, resulting in the hospitalization of both.

In the second half of the novel, Simon is in the hospital, Joe is being sent to jail for assault, and Kerewin has developed stomach cancer. Simon's wardship is being taken from Joe, a move strongly resisted by all three of the trio, despite their violent relationship. Simon is sent to a children's home, Joe to jail, and Kerewin deconstructs her tower and leaves, expecting to be dead within the year.

All three experience life-changing events, strongly interlaced with Maori mythology and legend, eventually leading to their healing and return. Kerewin is miraculously healed and adopts Simon, to keep him both near to and protected from Joe, while Joe is able to contact Kerewin's family and bring them back for a reunion of forgiveness. In the final segment of the book, Kerewin adopts a blind cat known as Li, or balance, seemingly representing the path they have travelled.

Characters in "the bone people"

  • Kerewin Holmes - Kerewin is a reclusive artist who is running away from her past.

Kerewin was a powerful painter. She has suffered painter’s block since having a lottery win, building her tower and falling out with her family. She doubts her value and her abilities because she can no longer paint.

Kerewin wants to help Simon discover his past, wants Joe to stop beating Simon and wants all other people to leave her alone.

  • Joe Gillayley - Joe is the adoptive father of Simon. He is very intelligent and spiritual, but blinded in his judgement, particularly in relation to his raising of Simon, by his alcoholism. Joe seems to both love and respect Kerewin, but also compete with her. He is deeply scarred by his wife's death, contributing to his alcoholism.
  • Simon P. Gillayley - Simon is a mute child who displays an immense interest in details of the world around him. He exhibits a disregard for personal property, and shows exceptional intelligence and talent in some areas.

His life before meeting Joe is never satisfactorily explained. It is hinted that he was abused before meeting Joe - Joe refers to seeing strange marks on him when he met him for the first time. Simon is also upset by certain things, for example, having his hair cut, or hearing the French language spoken. Simon refers to himself as Clare or Claro.

It's likely that his birth father was a dissolute Irish heroin addict who was involved in drug smuggling.

Simon has a deep attachment to both Joe and Kerewin, but shows his love in odd ways because of his upbringing. Simon is isolated from others primarily by his inability to speak: others mistake his muteness for stupidity.

Major themes

The novel exhibits major Christian themes, most notably in its symbolism of Simon as a Christlike figure. He is a powerless figure, repeatedly abused and subjected to extreme violence and trauma, yet is continually forgiving, and in the words of Joe, "[He] does not hate."

Joe and Kerewin perpetuate the biblical imagery. Kerewin is a literal virgin; she has not engaged in sexual contact throughout her life, yet takes on a motherly aspect towards Simon, as did the Virgin Mary. Similarly, Joe appears a parallel to the biblical Joseph; he is not the blood father of Simon, yet willingly takes on his care and parenting.

Isolation is one of the major themes of The Bone People. Kerewin isolates herself from the world in her tower; Simon is isolated from the world by his inability to speak; Joe is isolated by his grief. Characters' motivations are shown to the reader through paragraphs that detail their thoughts, which serve to illustrate how their isolation leads to misunderstanding.

A further important theme is Hulme's vision of a utopian unity between Maori and Western culture in New Zealand. She does not simply "write back" against Eurocentric hegemony but includes Western culture in her healing vision as well. This is a major difference to writers such as Chinua Achebe, who write almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the colonized and reject Western philosophy. Note how Kerewin, Joe and Simon also function as metaphors/allegories in the context of postcolonial discourse: Joe could be seen as resembling Maori culture, Simon represents European culture and Kerewin represents the culture clash between both (Kerewin is a "hybrid", half-Maori, half Pakeha). In this context, the novel's magical realism makes sense: the characters' illnesses (cancer, suicide attempt, etc.) can be regarded, in a figurative way, as "cultural illnesses" that are overcome in the end of the novel, when Kerewin, Joe and Simon form a sort of "patchwork family".

Awards and nominations

the bone people won both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Literature in 1985.

Release details

  • 1983, New Zealand, Spiral/Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0-14-008922-5, first published in 1984, then in United States of America in 1985 by Louisiana State University Press, then in 1986 by Penguin Books, soft-cover.

Sources, references, external links, quotations

  • Keri Hulme's blog Keri Hulme's blog

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