Set amid luscious, rich, yet turbulent New Zealand seascapes, where Maori and Western cultures meet, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People is a gripping story that produces tremendous insight on the meaning of family, healing from our traumas and the necessity of compassion.
Quick-witted Kerewin Holmes, a headstrong artist with spiritual inclinations, withdraws from society to live in a tower by the sea. She struggles after winning a lottery that allows her to build this unique home and live self-sufficiently, an ostensibly dream life of foraging, dining and creating art… or at least trying to. She isolates herself with her favorite things- precious stones, eccentric antiques, and what I imagined to be a bomb shelter full of booze. I salivated when her liquor cabinet was described.
One pivotal evening, she finds Simon inside her home. He’s a speechless little boy with a proclivity to steal from others, not simply as a vice, but as a call for attention. Kerewin uncommonly responds to Simon with a mixture of sharpness, patience and curiosity; it’s not necessarily lovingly, but seems to be exactly what the injured boy needs. After meeting Simon’s foster father, Joseph Gillayley, they commence a series of intimate gatherings, their bonds tighten, and Kerewin is surprised to not find herself displeased with the duo’s company. We learn how Joe found Simon, the associated frustrations he inherited and painful losses that came with gaining a new son. He cryptically reveals how his extended family and the community at large deal with his ambivalent parenting skills.
The Bone People challenges notions of what “family” means on many levels. We see it in how the makeshift trio – each character with fractured biological family histories of their own – and their newfound dynamics satisfy something they each lack. The meaning of family is also tested through Simon’s abandonment, the legality of Joe’s status as Simon’s father and morality surround his parenting, and through Kerewin’s provision of a safe, nurturing environment for Simon while retaining a distant, minimal responsibility for him.
Kerewin gets all Nancy Drew on her new friends and uses the few clues she has to reconstruct a clearer picture of Simon’s enigmatic family background. She struggles to interpret Joe and Simon’s relationship, and when hints of cruelty become more and more obvious she passively bears witness to the abuse. By doing so, Hulme holds a mirror to how most people react in the face of injustice. The book gets really hard around here. You want to hate Joe, in fact you probably will, but Hulme enables you to understand him and incidentally the reality of abuse cycles and parenting behaviors’ intergenerational transmission. By showing how her characters’ wounds compound their personalities and social behavior, the author creates an intricately realistic world where there aren’t heroes or villains, but rather very complex people.
The Bone People challenges notions of what “family” means on many levels. We see it in how the makeshift trio – each character with fractured biological family histories of their own – and their newfound dynamics satisfy something they each lack.
Hulme weaves a continuous mystery around the characters’ tumultuous lives, with each of their backgrounds existing as a mystery of their own. She presents Kerewin, Joe and Simon’s circumstances in a tragic, yet truthful manner that is felt throughout the book. By incorporating Maori words and phrases into their dialogue, she enhances the reader’s ability to feel the many textures of New Zealand’s social fabric; this is also perceived when Hulme dives into more mystical parts of Maori culture and in how her characters transmute life experiences into art.
The book switches between perspectives. It’s fascinating to view the adults from Simon’s perspective, marked by a sort of intuited pessimism from short but heavy life experience. You feel his helplessness and by extension that of all children, powerless at the whims of parent figures who determine the course of their psychological development. While fishing with the lads, Kerewin thinks: “ ‘The childhood years are the best years of your life…’ Whoever coined that was an unmitigated fuckwit, a bullshit artist supreme. Life gets better the older you grow, until you grow too old of course.” I tend to think you can tell more about people from what happened in their childhood versus what they’re up to now. You know how there’s white privilege? Well, this book made me feel the power of stable family privilege, and the advantages people take for granted when very formative childhood years are allowed to unfold relatively undisturbed.
If suffering is a sort of universal default, shouldn’t realizing that and recognizing our own pain in others serve to fill the gap between our grossest differences? I guess the fact that too often it’s not enough is a testament to the scarring power of our most personal fears and traumas. I approached the book expecting it to highlight the differences in New Zealand’s cultural landscape, but instead of noting cultural contrasts, I was reminded of the universality of suffering and how it transcends such divides. I finished The Bone People deeply feeling how patience and compassionate support, regardless of bloodlines, can slow down the most violent maelstroms, and that no matter how great our personal disillusion with life might be, we should do our utmost not to transfer it onto the little ones.