Book Review: Keri Hulme’s The Bone People

Posted February 11, 2013 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Keri Hulme’s The Bone People

The Bone People

in Paperback edition on June 29, 2010 and has 576 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

A sad story about a dysfunctional group of people in New Zealand.

In 1985, The Bone People won the Man Booker Prize and the Pegasus Prize for Literature, while in 1984, it won the New Zealand Post Book Award. I can understand this, although why obtuse and confused always seems to accompany such winners continually raises questions in my mind.

My Take

There are two things I loved about this story: the incorporation of Maori culture and the general idea of the storyline. I hated the cruel side of Joe. That everyone just kept brushing it under the rug, although I had a hard time believing that it was Joe until Hulme hit me over the head with it! I definitely disliked half of Hulme’s style.

I know. How can a person dislike part of another’s style? I can’t think of any other way to describe it. For a seven-year-old, Simon’s thought speech is amazingly adult which made it very confusing to know who was speaking/thinking. When I read a story, I want to understand the characters, their reasons for how they ended where they do/did and why they act as they do. Instead, in The Bone People, I felt as though I were underwater with the currents tumbling me every which way through the waves, never allowing me to gain a sense of up. And it’s why I could not give it a “5”.

It takes forever before we get to learn what makes even a tiny part of Simon tick. And it is very much a child’s perspective on how to create a traditional family. And makes me cry even more for this child. Hulme does pull you in, make you care for these three people. Pretty amazing when you consider how deep the negatives go on all three! Then there’s that one particular resolution at the end. And it ends with the discovery. That’s it. We never learn any more about their background, who Simon’s people are, where they came from.

This was a village of people with all the closeness that implies, and yet it was also a series of distant relationships. For all its depth, Hulme skimmed the surface, providing just enough detail to pull me into her story and want to know more about its characters. And until the end, I was not interested in reading any more of this story. Now. Now, I want more.

I don’t understand why that side story got tacked on for Joe at the end. I kept thinking that maybe it was his grandfather or great-grand, but I later suspected he wasn’t. But, then again…and I still wouldn’t understand why Hulme tucked it in as it didn’t seem to have any purpose other than to provide more information about Maori culture.

It’s a terrifying story in some ways. Again, my rant about parents needing to be licensed. And yet, as the system learns, there’s more to any story.

The Story

It’s a break-in at her tower that brings Kerewin into Simon and Joe’s lives. An encounter she can decide if it’s good or bad…but mostly both.

It may be enough to bring all three of them to life.

The Characters

Kerewin Holmes has won the lottery and lost her family. No, I have no idea in what order this occurred. She’s also lost her ability to paint. And I have no idea why. She does have the most amazing house she built, though and a very back-to-the-earth self-subsisting lifestyle. A very lonely one.

Simon is who he is on the outside; Clare is his name on the inside; and, Haimona/Himi is Joe’s pet name for him. This is a complex little boy who is hurting in so many ways. A boy who is loved deeply and brutally beaten at the same time.

Joe Gillayley of the Ngati Kahungunu has taken on the care of a toddler whose caregivers were lost in a shipwreck. He recently lost his wife and young son, and Simon is now his new family. But one whom he views in a wide-ranging swing of emotions. It’ll just break your heart…

Marama and Wherahiko (Joe’s uncle) Tainui. Their kids include Luce with whom, it seems, Joe had a short affair; Ben is the oldest and works the farm; Piri works for Ben on the farm (I think Polly Ackers is Piri’s live-in girlfriend). Piri is separated from his wife Lynn who took most of the kids; Timote is still with his dad.

Price is the barman at the Duke in the village. Dr. Elizabeth Lachlan is the only medico Simon allows near. Binny Daniels is the village pederast, who influences the penultimate end. But why it leads to the tower’s destruction…I dunno. There is just so much that I don’t know…

Tiaki Mira, the kaumatua, is the old man at the end, waiting for the broken man, the digger, and the stranger. Dr. Sinclair Fayden is the only one who understands what Simon wants. And, strangely enough, needs.

The Cover and Title

The cover is gorgeous. All black and white with a Maori graphic. I interpret the central character as having an opinion about Joe.

I think the title refers to events at the end of the book and Maori myths about The Bone People.