Bone People (Hulme)

The Bone People 
Keri Hulme, 1984
Penguin Group USA
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780140089226

Winner, 1985 Man Booker Prize
Pegasus Award

Integrating both Maori myth and New Zealand reality, The Bone People became the most successful novel in New Zealand publishing history when it appeared in 1984. Set on the South Island beaches of New Zealand, a harsh environment, the novel chronicles the complicated relationships between three emotional outcasts of mixed European and Maori heritage.

Kerewin Holmes is a painter and a loner, convinced that "to care for anything is to invite disaster." Her isolation is disrupted one day when a six-year-old mute boy, Simon, breaks into her house. The sole survivor of a mysterious shipwreck, Simon has been adopted by a widower Maori factory worker, Joe Gillayley, who is both tender and horribly brutal toward the boy.

Through shifting points of view, the novel reveals each character's thoughts and feelings as they struggle with the desire to connect and the fear of attachment. Compared to the works of James Joyce in its use of indigenous language and portrayal of consciousness, The Bone People captures the soul of New Zealand as it continues to astonish and enrich readers around the world. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 9, 1947
Where—Christchurch, New Zealand
Education—studied law at the University of Canterbury
Awards—Man Booker Prize, 1985
Currently—lives in Okarito, Westland, New Zealand

Hulme was born in Christchurch, in New Zealand's South Island. The daughter of a carpenter and a credit manager, she was the eldest of six children. Her parents were of English, Scottish, and Maori (Ngai Tahu) descent. "Our family comes from diverse people: Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe (South Island Maori iwi); Orkney islanders; Lancashire folk; Faroese and/or Norwegian migrants," Hulme told Contemporary Women Poets. Her early education was at North New Brighton Primary School and Aranui High School. Her father died when she was 11 years old.

Hulme worked as a tobacco picker in Motueka after leaving school. She began studying for an honours law degree at the University of Canterbury in 1967, but left after four terms and returned to tobacco picking.

By 1972, she decided to begin writing full-time, but, despite family support, was forced to go back to work nine months later. She continued writing, some of her work appearing under the pseudonym Kai Tainui. During this time, she continued working on her novel, The Bone People, ultimately published in February 1984. The novel was returned by several publishers before being accepted by the Spiral Collective. It won the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Booker Prize in 1985.

Hulme was a writer-in-residence at the University of Otago in 1978, and at the University of Canterbury in 1985. She lives in Okarito, in Westland, New Zealand. Hulme has been the Patron of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand since 1996. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
This a powerful, gripping book, with sharply drawn characters who tug at every heartstring. But I need to insert a disclaimer here: it’s not an easy book, and it's not for everyone. Hulme’s long-windedness, her strange flights of prose or poetry, can feel excessive at times. There is also a violent episode that is particularly disturbing, although it's critical to the plot. Thankfully, the characters achieve.... Read more.
A LitLovers LitPick (Jun. 07)

Winner of the 1985 Booker Prize, this novel by a New Zealander of Maori, Scottish and English ancestry focuses on three people—one Maori, one European and one of mixed blood—who are locked together in animosity and love. Although Hulme sometimes is sidetracked into self-indulgent verbiage, she has abundant, enticing stories to tell of culturally split lives.
Publishers Weekly

This is quite a first novel. The ending is revealed at its mysterious beginning; exotic line breaks and poetic punctuation put off at first but gradually become the best way to tell the tale; the Maori vocabulary is interwoven with contemporary British, Australian, and American idioms; and the New Zealand sea and landscape vibrate under fresh perception. Hulme shifts narrative points of view to build a gripping account of violence, love, death, magic, and redemption. A silverhaired, mute, abused orphan, a laborer heavy with sustained loss, and a brilliant intro spective recluse discover, after enormous struggle through injury and illness, what it means to lose and then regain a family. No wonder The Bone People won the Pegasus Prize. Highly recommended. —Rhoda Yerburgh, Adult Degree Program, Vermont Coll., Montpelier.
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Bone People:

1. Isolation is a the major motif in this work. Consider the way in which each of the three main characters—Keri, Simon, and Joe—are isolated from the outside world. What is the cause of each character's isolation?

2. Consider Keri:

  • What is the symbolic significance of her tower?
  • Why does she distrust people?
  • What are her vampire dreams about?
  • Why can she can no longer paint?

3. Consider Simon:

  • What is the source of his muteness?
  • In what way does is he socially withdrawn and alienated?
  • Is he a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

4. Consider Joe:

  • Why does he beat Simon? How are we to feel about his abuse? Are you sympathetic toward him?
  • What is the significance of his Maori background—how does it affect his self-identity?

 5. How would you describe the relationships of the three main characters...

  • between Keri and Simon
  • between Simon and Joe
  • between Joe and Keri

Why are these people drawn to one another? What do they want from each other?

6.  Art plays an important role in this work.

What is the significance of Keri's art?

  • What does it suggest about her state of mind?
  • What is Joe's response to Keri's claim that she has no "sexual urge or appetite"? What does he mean by when he says its "sublimation"—a "Maori thing in a way"?
  • What does Joe learn about himself in the chapter with the old man?

7. Discuss the horrific scene in which Joe pummels Simon and Simon wounds Joe with the piece of glass. Who bears responsibility for that abuse? What role, for instance, does Keri play? Was it right to remove Simon from Joe's wardship?

8. The antidote to isolation (see question #1) is community and family. In what ways do Keri, Simon, and Joe each find acceptance in community at the end of the novel? How are each healed in the end?

9. What role does Maori mythology play in this story and how does it lead to healing and return to community of the three?

10. What is the significance of the book's title—as it relates to Maori art and culture, as well as to the three main characters, who are, figuratively, stripped to the bone?

11. What does this novel suggest about the New Zealand-based European culture and the indigenous Maori/Pakeha cultures? In what way do they conflict with one another...and in what way might those cultures be united? Is the book hopeful or pessimistic that there could be a potential for common ground?

12. Did you find the poetry and digressions into myth difficult to follow and excessive...or did you see them as an artistic and integral part of the plot? (Critics fall on either side of the question—so this is subjective, in other words, it's based on your opinion.)

13. Is the ending satisfying? What do you see as the future for the three characters—Keri, Simon, and Joe?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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