The Bone People by Keri Hulme is a difficult book about identity, love, and belonging. Hulme 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 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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