The Bone People: A Novel

by Keri Hulme

Paperback, 1986

Call number




Penguin Books (1986), 450 pages


This unusual novel, set in New Zealand, concentrates on three people: Kerewin Holmes, a part-Maori painter who has chosen to isolate herself in a tower she built from lottery winnings; Simon, a troubled and mysterious little boy; and Joe Gillayley, the Maori factory worker who is Simon's foster father. Elements of Maori myth and culture are woven into the novel's exploration of the passions and needs that bind these three people together, for good or ill. It's not easy reading, but the story is compelling despite its stylistic eccentricities and great length. The novel is the winner of the Pegasus Prize.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tngolden
Having lived in New Zealand for a short period of my life I have since been fascinated by the Maori, the indiginous population of New Zealand. They have an intriguing culture of Hakas, elaborate wood-carving, mythology, and tattooing in their beautiful Island continent.
With that in mind it was with
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excitement that I picked up this book from my University bookstore. What I found within was much more then I expected. While I was looking for a cultural expose, I found that besides that I was enjoying a fascinating tale that is human in nature: one of strength and weakness, the conflict and resolution between people, the different stages of age and development and the conflict between generations, family dynamics and economic strata. The characters are round, developed and fascinating and the landscape they live in within the story is crowded with symbolism and allegory. This isn't a book you read, this is a book you experience... at least that was what I found, and now that it is through I find I really miss living in Hulme's environment.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
"A family can be the bane of one's existence. A family can also be most of the meaning of one's existence. I don't know whether my family is bane or meaning, but they have surely gone away and left a large hole in my heart." (p. 242)

Keri Hulme's Booker prize-winning novel is about the healing power
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of relationships and family bonds. Kerewin is an artist and recluse, unmarried and estranged from her family. Joe is a widowed laborer with a violent temper. Simon, Joe's foster son, lost his parents in a boating accident. Simon's specific identity is unknown, he cannot speak, and he has suffered severe emotional trauma. These three very lonely people come together when Simon breaks into Kerewin's house. Slowly, tentatively, Joe and Simon reach out to Kerewin. Slowly, tentatively, she accepts their attentions. After a long holiday at a seaside camp they are as close to a family as any of them have ever experienced. However, the dark side of each character looms large, and when the inevitable happens each character is shaken to their very core and must choose when and how to begin the healing process.

Hulme's writing style is unorthodox, yet I found this book difficult to put down. I was completely committed to the characters, despite their often significant flaws. The insights into Maori culture were interesting. Although I was a bit uncertain how the ending came together the way it did, I very much enjoyed the journey.
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LibraryThing member jeoblivion
This was my second time of reading The Bone People. I remember loving it the first time around, but I also remember thinking that it was flawed in many little ways (the very beginning, the sketchy end, the way the story's strands seem to escape Keri Hulme in the last third) yet whenever I've
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stumbled upon it on GR I kept being surprised at my 4*rating, since there's many five* reads that I remember much less and that had less of an emotional impact on me. I think this time I've surrendered to my gut which told me that this book might be like my bookshelf. I love it dearly, self-built as it is, but it isn't really what anyone would call a neatly build shelf. Yet I would sing it's praise (the book's and the shelf's) at every chance that I get.

Hulme is a wonderful storyteller and her language - though odd at times - is very powerful.
One of the things that most impressed me about this book is the warmth Keri Hulme has for her deeply damaged characters, without ever using the soft-focus-lens on their actions. It left me in an interesting grey area as a reader quite often, being repulsed by / in love with these people in equal measures.

I'd recommend it highly to anyone who's interested in literature from and about New Zealand and in following the journey of three emotional shipwrecks (often odd and beautiful, sometimes odd and hard to stomache) in a story that has one foot in New Zealand-Realism and the other deep in Maori-Symbolism.
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LibraryThing member plenilune
A classic of contemporary fiction, not quite like anything I've read before. Hulme skillfully weaves together the emotional and actual lives of three genuinely unique characters. There is poetry and song, folktale and myth. The often harsh realities of life are rendered in unflinching,
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heartbreaking detail. Ultimately, this is a novel of redemption and of family, both the one you are born into and the one you choose. Not any easy read by any means, but almost impossible to put down once you've started and well worth the effort.
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LibraryThing member PamelaReads
A bewitching fusion of Maori ancient traditions and humanities timeless imperfections

I am emotionally exhausted after spending the last two weeks reading The Bone People. As hard as I tried, I was never able to sit for more than an hour with these tragic and severely flawed characters. Hulme's
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portrayal of the complex and layered relationship between a perpetrator of abuse and his battered victim is so accurate that I can only assume that she has been through a similar trauma in her own life.

Our protagonist - or antihero, in my opinion- is a troglodyte drunkard who is forced out of her self-imposed exile by a visit from a neighbouring impish boy, who happens to be mute. Against all odds an endearing relationship is forged between these two misfits, as Kerewin finds herself protecting Simon from the harsh hand of his overwhelmed and iron-fisted father.

It wasn't just disturbing content that had me straining to get through this finely printed, 450-page novel, as some of the book was written in the Maori language, and as a result we are forced to use an index of translations found at the back of the book in order to comprehend the contrasting cultural references. I am just thankful that I discovered the index by accident before I started, or else it would have been even more confusing and frustrating to wade through. Not only was it easily missed, it was annoying to have to flip to the back of the book, and as such I feel it would have been much more efficient to have just footnoted the translations at the bottom of each page respectively.

Ultimately Hulme's novel is poetic, inspiring of vivid imagery, and definitely worthy of more than one read in order to grasp all that it has to offer. Through unique customs and folklore we learn about the extraordinary ways of New Zealand's indigenous people, while we relate to their commonality through situations that are shared by emotionally damaged and flawed people from anywhere around the world.
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LibraryThing member shani413
I've read this book a number of times, I return to it every few years. The first reading nearly destroyed me, because the content is so emotionally disturbing. Child abuse is never a good time, though the other presiding themes of isolation and the human capacity for love and forgiveness redeem it
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from the realm of senseless violence. At a certain point in the first reading I was so absorbed in the psyche of the characters that I found myself completely invested, and could not have walked away if I'd tried. It is the mark of a great book to be so wholly effected by it....good or bad, but never indifferent. I have to admit that I have never liked the ending, but the journey to that point is one you can't soon forget. This book will not be for everyone.
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LibraryThing member bodachliath
An original, personal and visceral novel, which for me is the kind of book that justifies the existence of the Booker Prize. The surface story is about the interactions between three difficult and damaged people, but there is a lot more to it than that - plenty of Maori culture, mythology and
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language (fortunately most of the latter is translated in the glossary) and a mixture of first and third person narrative voices including quite a lot of poetry. That may sound difficult, but the core story is quite gripping , though I must admit that I didn't try to follow everything. Hulme's introduction says that it started as a short story, but the finished novel is much more than that.

At the centre of the story is Kerewin Holmes, whose character must be at least slightly autobiographical. She is an artist of mixed European and Maori heritage, estranged from her family, who leads a self-sufficient and independent life in a tower she has built for herself on the New Zealand coast. Her life is disturbed when she finds a mute boy with an injured foot in her tower. The boy is Simon (or Haimona), who turns out to be a survivor of a shipwreck in which his parents are believed to have died. The third character is Joe, who found Simon and adopted him with his now dead wife. Both Joe and Kerewin are heavy drinkers. The story concerns their interactions, conflicts and culture clashes.

The story touches on some difficult themes, particularly Joe's relationship with Simon, which mixes extreme physical violence with a love that Simon needs more than anything else. Kerewin is asexual and dislikes physical contact, she is also fiercely independent. Part of the story involves the mystery of Simon's background - for example it is known that he already bore the scars of physical abuse before his adoption. I won't say too much more about the plot - I'm not sure I entirely believed the happy ending but it occupies such a small part of the book that it almost feels like an afterthought.

So a very interesting book, a little flawed but probably very memorable. I don't know why it took me so long to get round to reading it, but I would certainly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member karieh
This is a very difficult review for me to write. This book was recommended to me by a new LibraryThing friend.

The language is simply beautiful - even/especially the Maori words that I do not understand. Hulme's words create color drenched pictures and music that is haunting and incredibly sad.
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(Fitting music for the background of this book.)

The reason that this is a difficult review to write is that because Hulme is so successful at putting us inside the (3) main characters...but those are places I do not want to be. I sympathize with these incredibly damaged people - but I cannot empathize with them. The amount of violence - especially against a small child - leaves me heartsick and almost unwilling to read on.

Because of that level of violence - I was unable to trust Hulme when the story came to a conclusion. I simply no longer believed that the characters would act as they did.

This book provides a window to a world far from my very foreign and very disturbing.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Set in New Zealand, Kerewin is a reclusive artist living alone in a tower by the sea. One day a young mute boy named Simon shows up at her home and soon insinuates himself into her life. Simon’s stepfather Joe finishes out the odd trio of troubled souls. Together they make a strange family of
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sorts, but the darker undertones in their relationships soon bubble to the surface.

I’ve never read anything quite like Hulme’s style. It’s a blend of narrative, inner monologue, and poetry. Some parts feel like stream of consciousness, in others we hear what someone is thinking while someone else is talking to them. Usually a style of writing that chaotic would really bother me, but somehow all of the distinct elements work well together and create the tone for the whole novel.

The odd group of characters that doesn’t quite fit anywhere manages to fit together quite nicely. The subject material is tough; child abuse and alcoholism are two of the main issues dealt with in the story. I felt like there were many unanswered questions in the plot and the final third of the novel felt a bit confusing to me.

BOTTOM LINE: One of the most unique novels I’ve ever read. I’m glad I read it if for no other reason than that. I did love seeing Maori culture through a new lens and getting to know Kerewin and Simon. I wish the end had been easier to follow, but the regardless it was a singular reading experience.

There is a glossary of Maori words in the back of the book, but it isn’t alphabetized so I couldn’t ever find what I was looking for as I read the book.
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LibraryThing member ucla70
This book is messy, but I guess that’s the point: Life is messy and relationships are especially so. Hulme’s constant switches from first person to third person point of view, intermixed with poetry, were difficult to adjust to at first. The story is overlong. The main characters are developed
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so completely and realistically, I cared about them, usually, even though the two adults are often despicable in their meanness. The child abuse is horrific. The many Maori words and phrases kept me flipping back to the “Translation” section. The setting is fascinating, as are the insects, birds, and the people. Legends and myths mix with the supernatural. Somehow, Hulme makes it work. I am glad I read it, although it is a slow go, and the epilogue seems an afterthought. The characters are so real, I lived their experience with them. It wasn’t fun.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I found this book very difficult to read at times but it was well worth it. Apparently it was almost never published but three women formed the Spiral Collective to get it printed. It has gone on to win the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature, the New Zealand Book Award and the Booker Prize. The
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author has not published any other novels in the more than three decades since.

Simon P. Gillayley is a young fair-haired boy who cannot speak but can hear just fine. He was washed ashore when a boat went down during a storm with no identification. The others on the boat drowned or disappeared and no-one has reported a boy missing. Joe Gillayley and his wife decided to keep him and bring him up as their own child. Then the wife died, Joe started to drink more and Simon became a young hellion. He skipped school, got into fights, stole things and had terrific temper tantrums. Joe loves him but sometimes, especially when he has been drinking, Simon's antics cause him to lose his temper and beat the child. One day while Simon is skipping school he breaks into Kerewin Holmes' residence and she finds him. Kerewin is an artist and musician who won a lottery and now lives in a tower near the sea with as little interaction with other people as she can manage. Somehow Simon manages to worm his way into her affection and bring Joe along for the ride. These three damaged people grow to love each other and it seems like the worst of their lives is behind them. And then it all falls apart and the three are separated. Each person has to overcome severe physical problems and the attendant mental anguish. Fortunately, each person finds another person to help them and guide them. Simon's guide is a doctor who really listens, Joe is found by an old Maori man who has been waiting for him for years and Kerewin receives help from a woman who may or may not be corporeal. There was an element of mysticism throughout the book and it came to the forefront in the final section. I'm not a fan of magical realism but I wouldn't classify this book as being in that realm. Instead there are hints of knowledge held by the Maori which modern peoples have forgotten or never knew and this knowledge can cure and heal if one believes.

The author has mostly written poetry and that is apparent throughout the book. This passage near the end of the book when Kerewin answers the question "What do you love?" really struck me:
Very little. The earth. The stars. The sea. Cool classical guitar. Throbbing flamenco. Any colour under the sun or hidden deep in the breast of my mother Earth. Ah Papa [Maori for the name of the Earth herself] my love, what joys do you yet conceal? And storms...and the thunderous breaking surf. And the farout silent waves...and o, dolphins and whales! The singing people, my sisters in the sea...and anything that displays gentle courage, steadfast love. The still brilliance of garnet, all wine, water of life and bread of heaven and grave shimmering moon...
Doesn't seem like very little to me.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
I am having a hard time digesting this book. I was glad I read it after reading a memoir/history of New Zealand so that I understood a bit more of the wonderful folklore and Maori myth woven into this story. I still can't decide, however, if I can accept that a parent who deals repeated,
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disfiguring, violent abuse can be understood, forgiven, and given a second redeeming chance. Am I being realistic or uncharitable? Am I seeing things only from the point of view of a white, European-descended Pakeha? I found the story beautiful, yet disturbing. Although the ending made sense in the context of the book, outside the author's magical spell, I don't know that I can accept it.
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LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
The Bone People is a difficult book about identity, love, and belonging. Hume tells the story of three tough-as-nails characters: Kerewin, an isolated artist who can no longer paint; Joe, a Maori workman struggling to raise his adopted son alone; and Simon, the mute little boy Joe found washed up
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on the seashore.

The style is difficult because the point of view switches around among the three main characters without warning; Hulme uses Joycean made-up words as well as Maori words; and it is hard to tell when the adults are speaking their own words or thinking out loud what they think the mute little Simon is trying to communicate.

The story is difficult because of the child abuse at the center of the plot. The ambivalence with which Hulme treats the topic makes the story incredibly interesting, but absolutely distressing.

The characters are difficult because none of them are likable. Simon is sympathetic, for sure. But even he has his moments of maliciousness, although these are less convincing than Hulme may have intended.

Joe, on the other hand, does not deserve the sympathy Hulme seems to want the reader to give him. Yes, he gets his comeuppance in the end, but it does not seem sufficient punishment. His role is key to the story because he is the hinge between Simon and Kerewin, but the ultimate resolution seems a little unrealistic, given the prior conflict.

Kerwin is particularly prickly and seething with anger. She is quick to lash out verbally, and if angry enough or drunk enough, physically. She has cut herself off from her family and her community, preferring to live in an isolated tower by the ocean. She has even isolated herself from her own sex, considering herself to be a third gender – a “neuter.” But Kerwin’s story makes the book worth reading. She is one of the most complex and intriguing characters in contemporary literature.
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LibraryThing member Ma_Washigeri
Very engaging. The plot is quite simple for such a long book - a demi-god living amongst us, and the affect on a father and son who dare to recognise and engage. However the book is not a word too long. Opens a window on a New Zealand community and the land and sea around them, and windows into the
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reader's heart and soul. Worth reading slowly for the richness of the writing as well as ideas. I only discovered the list of Maori words and notes near the end of reading the book. I'm glad it is there but if I had known earlier I would have interrupted the flow of the narrative flicking forwards at each phrase instead of going with the flow.
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LibraryThing member Laine-Cunningham
After I got used to how the author handled the dialog and internal monolog, I really fell into the world she'd created. I was as fascinated by the boy as the primary character. I felt like I was there, in that world, looking through the protagonist's eyes. This is a real triumph for any author. I
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WILL be reading more by Hulme!
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LibraryThing member LibraryCin
The Bone People / Keri Hulme
2 stars

Simon is a little boy and is mute. When he comes across Kerewin, an artist, he seems to like her and wants to spend time with her. Simon's “foster” father (though it's not offical) is a Maori man, Joe. The three get to know each other.

I did not like the style
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of writing and that put me off right away. I skimmed through most of it. The most interesting parts for me involved Simon's interactions with Kerewin, and Simon on his own. There were seemingly inexplicable indented paragraphs throughout the book; I'm sure the indents were supposed to indicate something, but I never figured it out. There were a couple of sections at the end that were a little more interesting, but overall, I really didn't like it.
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LibraryThing member 1morechapter
I didn't think I was going to like this book at first, and I didn't love it, but it definitely kept me reading and I did care about the characters.

Kerewin is an artist who lives in a Tower by the sea. She likes living by herself and even likes the isolation. She is estranged from her family.

Joe is
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a factory worker with an adopted son who is always getting into trouble. Joe has a bit of a drinking problem and doesn't keep good tabs on his son. The boy ends up at Kerewin's place, and the three end up becoming friends, if not a quasi family unit. Secrets, lies, and violence lie beneath the surface, though, and threaten to tear them all apart.

The story takes place in New Zealand with Joe and Kerewin being part Maori. Some of the myths, culture, and history of the Maori are also part of the book.

This is a different kind of book that is written in almost a "stream of consciousness" style. I thought this was a bit distracting at first, but then I got used to it and even enjoyed it. I also don't like it when authors use the present tense rather than the past tense. This aspect bothered me for about 3/4 of the book, but then I didn't notice it anymore.

For instance (p. 34) "She picks up the curious pendant one last time, to fondle and admire before she goes downstairs," rather than "She picked up the curious pendant one last time and fondled and admired it before she went downstairs." I guess it's a preference issue.
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LibraryThing member cantab
One of the best written books ever published. Can't recommend it highly enough!
Vivid, cutting, colorful, painful, simply alive. This book sticks with me years and years after I first grappled with it.
LibraryThing member bibliobbe
Keri Hulme made her reputation on this book, and of course she won the Booker Prize in 1985 – the first, and still only, New Zealander to do so. The themes of child abuse in a dysfunctional family are stunning in this setting, particularly as the main perpetrator is so sympathetically drawn.
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Compared to the other New Zealand classic on abuse, Once Were Warriors, this is a much more three-dimensional portrait of violence and redemption. I forgive Hulme for being slow with the follow-up novel: this is so fantastic, you wouldn’t want to rush the next one.
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LibraryThing member ama_bee
not for the faint-of-heart. child abuse and other violence.
LibraryThing member T42
I first read this book for a college lit class, and I've read it again a couple of time since. Hulme does such a great job with the characters that you really begin to identify with them and that's part of the reason why this story will stick with you.
LibraryThing member lizhawk
A silverhaired, mute, abused orphan, a laborer heavy with sustained loss, and a brilliant introspective recluse discover, after enormous struggle through injury and illness, what it means to lose and then regain a family. An interesting story but somewhat difficult to read with flashbacks and
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oddities. Not for everyone.
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LibraryThing member ATechwreck
Wonderfully atmospheric writing makes the book come alive.
LibraryThing member becalee
I read this as part of a course on postcolonial literature. Captured a feeling of isolation and of maori culture beautifully.
LibraryThing member lysne
I just read this - It is wonderful. Not for people who don't enjoy language though... It is more like poetry in places, I just ate it up!




0140089225 / 9780140089226
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