I picked this novel up at the suggestion of my Lonely Planet New Zealand guidebook. The travel book promoted this Booker Prize winner as the quintessential introduction to New Zealand culture and art. What a mistake it was to trust the Lonely Planet for a literary suggestion. This book was crap that dragged on and on. It took me almost two months to finish and with each page I couldn’t wait for it to get on with it and be over so I could start another book.
So, why did I even finish it?
First of all, glancing at reviews online, The Bone People was highly celebrated as a groundbreaking and original work, and admittedly it did start strong as I whizzed through the first 75 pages or so with excitement. Hulme employed a unique style that floated from the perspective of each character in focus. The sporadic insertion of Maori words and phrases throughout the dialogue (with an appendix dictionary at the end of the book for reference) might be a distraction for some but I found the usage of Maori an enjoyable framework that depicted the blended culture of New Zealand people. The novel’s narrative was told from a third-person omniscient voice capable of flowing back and forth into the character’s thoughts with poetic fluidity and the language had an intriguing quality to it, heavily laden with descriptive adjectives that brought a focused clarity on fine qualities of the novel’s setting such as weather, smells, foliage and the surrounding sea. However, as the novel progressed the pace began to drag on and the extensive descriptions became less a joy and more a burden and later a tired conceit. Furthermore, the fluid style that seemed unique in the first pages later revealed itself as a lazy attempt at stream of consciousness spoken by a rambling narrator that didn’t really know where she was going with her story. I’d give examples, but I don’t really want to open the novels pages again just to prove myself.
Secondly, the characters populating the pages of The Bone People are frustrating and unlikable. The story is focused on three unlikely characters. First of there is Kerewin, a half-Maori artist who is estranged from her family and a hermit but somehow unmeasurably wealthy, expertly skilled at gardening, fishing, and fighting. Kerewin seems to have no faults other than her desire to be alone and at one with her art and her lack of faults and overabundance of skills causes her to be unrealistic and annoying as a primary character. Second there is Joe, a Maori factory worker who has lost his wife and child to illness sometime in the past. And third, there is Simon, Joe’s European foster son who is mute, a kleptomaniac, a vandal, and incapable of following rules of society such as attending school. Simon came into Joe’s care after he was found on the beach alone, supposedly the lone survivor of a shipwreck. All three characters have a quality of loneliness about them and as the narrative allows the reader to see into their thoughts as they wearily begin to grow in trust and care for each other.
These three come together haphazardly as Simon wanders onto Kerewin’s property and Joe later befriends Kerewin against her better will. A prolonged investment of the novel’s rambling is focused on the three’s developing friendship turned quasi-family as they spend all their time together, primarily drinking, smoking, drinking, and so on. Ultimately Kerwein discovers that Joe physically abuses Simon for the boy’s misgivings and although she desires to confront him about it, instead she obviously takes the moral high ground and decides to go on vacation with the two. On their vacation they drink and drink and drink. The amount of alcohol that is consumed is kind of ridiculous. Much can and has been said about the novel’s illicit glamorization of child abuse, but the ease with which all characters permit the prepubescent Simon to drink and smoke until he gets sick is just as noxious as the glamorization of child abuse. Ultimately everything falls apart for these three drunks after Joe sheepishly proposes marriage to Kerewin and she rejects him because she is strong willed and independent and just not into marriage or men or family. Simon then goes on a crazy glass-breaking rampage after seeing the decomposing body of the local child molester and in response to Simon’s vandalism Joe beats him until he is unconscious and requires hospitalization.
After the incident that sent Simon to the hospital, the novel takes an abrupt turn in pace as the narrative separately focused on each of the character’s outcomes rather than the drunken fluid blend that muddied the novel’s central action. Although the narrative style was focused and easier to read, the plot turns were appallingly disappointing.
First, Joe serves an astounding three months in prison for his brutality and on release he promptly breaks his arm and is serendipitously saved by a prophetic old man who is watching over a mystical hunk of Maori greenstone (jade). Joe promises to the man to watch over his property and protect the mystical greenstone, and then just as mysteriously fortuitous as their meeting, the man who had the strength to heal Joe suddenly dies. Then an earthquake conveniently destroys the property and Joe wanders off, breaking the promise he made to the dying man.
Then, after spending several weeks in hospital, Simon is later a ward of the state and somehow the reader is supposed to fall under the spell of the boy’s own infection of Stockholm Syndrome and appreciate the boy’s inert need to be beaten as the priest that watches over the orphanage is driven to beat Simon for his truancy and misbehavior just as Joe did. Despite all that has happened to him, Simon still longs to return to his abusive father that cared for him so deeply. Simon’s thoughts are curious and appalling and the novel seems to glamorize child brutality as something that just happens with little consequence as Kerewin hardly bats an eye when she discovers it and the state only imprisons Joe for a paltry three months for his crime.
And in the end Kerewin decides to destroy her home and go on a wandering walkabout as an unknown lump in her liver, likely cancer, begins to consumer her. She decides to face death by eating a bunch of mushrooms and painkillers and somehow her mystical experience cures her and helps her find resolution with herself and her need to be alone.
And ultimately the epilogue resolution somehow depicts the three back together as one happy family. The reader is expected to believe that all the conflict and turmoil that plagued the three somehow was resolved off the pages of this book. Or maybe they are all dead or the imagining of the three together is Kerewin’s fading thought before she dies. It really doesn’t matter. I may have gone into a lot of detail describing the plot and ending of this terrible book, but I have done so, to prevent you the pain of reading this. Whatever happens in the end, the book tries too hard to be poetic in its exploration of themes of loneliness, alcoholism, violence, and child abuse and in its attempt to explore these afflictions it fails to really say anything other than people live with afflictions and life goes on.