Bone People – Keri Hulme

Bone People - Keri Hulme

Good LORD, this book was a long time comin’. 545 pages of a language I didn’t know, 545 pages of a culture I didn’t know, and 545 pages of good story, without a real plot.   That pretty much sums it up if you want the point-blank view of this book.  However, and you all know that there is always a “however…” I really fell in love with these characters.

The three main characters (very main, as in, you hardly get to know anyone else outside of them) are Simon P (also known as Clare, Haimonia, and Himi),  his dad, Joe, and a lonely woman that Simon finds living in a tower named Kerwin Holmes.  I like to think the name Kerwin Holmes is a play on the authors name, Keri Hulme, but I haven’t figured out just why at this point.  I want to read Keri’s biography, I realize now that the character is based on herself, but if she knows Simon, I really want to know he was based on someone real as well.  He feels real to me anyhow.

Kerwin is a lovely character because she’s the listening character.  She’s the one who somehow understands, who is stunted creatively, who is estranged from her family, and yet she gives so much to Joe and Sim without even knowing she’s giving it.  She claims that she has refused to let her guard down, but it’s pretty clear she has already fallen in love with Sim and treats him as her own child.  Joe is not his real father either, just a pseudo-foster-dad who found him in a shipwreck.  Joe does love Sim endlessly, but he also has a dark history.

Sim, is Sim. He is mute, he steals, he throws bricks through windows and yet, he sings, he kisses, he creeps his tiny little hand into yours while you’re sleeping on the bunk below.  The introduction of a character with so many issues, who you have absolutely no real back-story on, because he is found in a ship-wreck filled with bundles of heroin (there may be a connection in there somewhere, but I can’t spoil it for the reader).  Sim may very well be one of my favorite literary characters of all time, and based just on him – I want everyone to read this book.

The only real issue I had are that I had to constantly read the glossary of New Zealand terms to figure out key points of the story.  Which, honestly, doesn’t bother me that much because I use the dictionary quite often, with normal, American novels.  Another issue though is that this book really had no plot and somehow, Hulme managed to throw a bit of magical realism in there just for the sake of it.  I’m sure I would understand better, if I understood the Maori culture, or their myth stories, but because I’m coming from a completely Western World perspective it was hard for me to pick up what I’m to gather from this book, and that section of magical realism.  Is it about the trinity of the three main characters?  Is it a Christian story of love and abandonment?  I’m just not sure.  I do understand that idea of Maori displacement, and the changing of Maori to European, but otherwise they myth-story, the true-to-heart tale of these three characters is lost on me.  (Not that it wasn’t beautiful, gut-wrenching, and pulled me through the entirety of the book).

So, in an effort to discover what I’m missing, I’ve been reading other blog reviews, e-reviews, even (dare I say it) spark notes.  (Don’t judge me).  The Guardian wrote a bit of a harsh review of Bone People, which can be found here.  It’s true that the language, grammar, and just writing in general at times is quite hard to follow.  I do highly respect Hulme for never giving in to any publishers who wanted to change her writing, although it is a struggle to get through in the prologue among other small pieces.  The character speaking, or point-of-view often changes abruptly as well which can be difficult when you’re unsure who is speaking since the characters have such a strong connection.

As Guardian says, she did finally get it picked up by a small NZ Press and it eventually won the Man Booker Prize.  This all says something about an author who wouldn’t let a big-name publisher change her words to anything less Maori, less her-characters, or lessen the story she is trying to tell, which if I haven’t said it already, is brilliant.

Can you tell I’m having a really hard time placing my thoughts with this review?

So, let me start from the beginning.

The opening prologue is a poem, with three short snip-its on each character.  You won’t exactly get any of it until you finish the book in its entirety, but it will displace you within the first five minutes.  I was sitting in my bed, socks off, each being eaten by monstrous flowery covers and waiting for anything to make sense.  I felt like I was sucked into a New Zealand twilight zone where I wasn’t invited into the culture because I’m a western gal.  (Just as a side note: my best friend married a Kiwi and is happily living on the cliff side with her new, and perfect family, and yet, still couldn’t get through the Maori puzzle even with any of her help).  I mean I got the gist, I got the amazing and terrifying, unusual love story unfolding through its 545 pages.  But, the Maori I was lost on.  I want so badly to know the Maori myths, to understand the entrance of the old man protecting the God, and the canoe towards the end, to understand Kerwin’s stabbing pain in her stomach when the others in her trinity were having equivalent pain.  Is it like twinness?  When one feels something, does another as well?  When Joe feels pain, or Sim, does Kerwin feel it wherever she is, alone, as well?

I don’t know.

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.

I loved this book.  I love these characters.  I am in love with Simon P. Gillayley and would follow his mute and singing skinny legs anywhere around the globe.  I believe in the persistence of Keri Hulme and her knowledge of her own writing being something that people NEED to have in their hands.

I even believe in the parts that I didn’t understand.  It’s a mystery, and it’s evocative.

Here is my favorite quote:

“But there’s no compass for my disorientated soul, only ever-beckoning ghost lights.”  (307), Bone People by Keri Hulme

Here are other reviews that you may be interested in:

I also just want to say that if you experienced the earthquakes throughout New Zealand (Christchurch), I am deeply sorry for the loss of your city.  Earthquakes happen in Bone People and it really struck me as coinciding with today’s Christchurch (among others) city of ruins.  I just kept picturing their bell tower.  My best friend Sarah Dion (now Drummond) is selling prints for Christchurch on  If you haven’t yet seen the devastation from the earthquakes in NZ, please watch this video:

13 thoughts on “Bone People – Keri Hulme

  1. Brenda says:

    Cassie – I bought this book last year and confess I haven’t had the heart or strength to tackle it. After reading your review and given my current state of mind I am not likely to tackle it until it’s dark and stormy. I will over look a lot if I fall for the characters. It’s what I remember and what I miss long after turning the last page of a book. Years ago I read Lonesome Dove – I had never read anything like it before and haven’t since, but it’s one of my favorite books ever. I miss those cowboys. And as said, don’t judge me.

  2. cassie says:

    I would never judge you. I had it for a few weeks before I even thought about reading it since it was so thick. And then, those first few pages really threw me and I wasn’t sure I’d even get through it. Definitely save it for a stormy week or something. The characters are really what got me through as well, so hopefully you’ll like it. Let me know when you get to it.

    You should also read, “Lark and Termite” by Jayne Anne Phillips, the characters in that book have stayed with me since. I think about that book constantly, especially when I’m writing. I’m going to try to get Lonesome Dove now that you’ve mentioned it – sounds amazing!

  3. bea mannes says:

    I am so glad you enjoyed the book, and you should talk Sarah into reading it. It will give her more insight into her new home country, as it did for you. I am sure you now really want to travel to New Zealand, and will get there someday.
    As for Lonesome Dove, she has me intrigued as well.

  4. Seth Joyner says:

    I love that you’re always on top of world occurrences. I love that you’re a writer who actually reads. I love that we’re friends. Keep being amazing.

  5. ClaireMcA says:

    What a great review and fabulous to know that Keri Hulme is still being discovered and pesevered with. I read her novel many years ago, but have it on my list of books to reread and I have been dipping in and out of her collection of short stories ‘Stonefish’ which I recently managed to find a copy of, curious to see what else she had written.

    Maori culture was an important part of my education until I was 13 and sent to a Catholic boarding school, where suddenly Maoridom didn’t exist. I found it harder then to believe in Christian stories than the metaphors of Maori myths and legends I was familiar with and understood instinctively. It is a wonderful culture rich in imagery, storytelling and superstition.

    Thanks for reminding us of this wonderful story and intriguing culture.

    • Cassie says:

      Now, I’m going to have to find Stonefish as well since I was pretty obsessed all the way through with Bone People. You sound like you have such a fascinating journey! My best friend just moved to New Zealand about three months ago and when I was in Australia I was fascinated by the aboriginal culture so I decided to try and read a more traditional Maori book. It was totally interesting and my mom got points because she picked it out. :)

      I want to learn more about their storytelling and myths, any recommendations?


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