Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Bone People--Review

The Bone People tells the story of three damaged people--Kerewin Holmes, a  part-Maori blocked artist who lives on an  isolated stretch of beach on the South Island of New Zealand,  Simon, the mute and semi-feral boy who breaks into her tower home, and Joe, his unofficial foster father, who struggles to raise the boy alone after his wife and young son die unexpectedly. Together the the three of them attempt to form a new community; they are the bone people that create the support structure for a new world, much as dying coral can be the basis for a new world.

I checked the reviews after reading this book; most people seem to love it or hate it. A great many reviewers love the poetical language, which can be evocative or aggravating--often in the same sentence:
           "and here I am, balanced on the saltstained rim, watching minutes navyblue fringes, gill-fingers of tubeworms, fan the water....put the shadow of a finger near them, and they flickooutasight...Eyes in your lungs....neat....haven't made sea-anemone soup for a while, whaddaboutit? Not today, Josephine...."

The point of view veers as wildly as the language, often shifting from paragraph to paragraph. There's a great deal of Maori, too, and not all of it is translated in the back glossary. I actually wasn't bothered by this, and would sometimes just let the language wash over me--and a few times (just a few) I could recognize words from their similarity to basic Hawaiian words.

It's a book of excesses--a young writer's work, with a young writer's self-indulgences and exuberances. The small feminist press that finally accepted Ms Hulme's novel made no attempt (as she herself says in the rather lofty forward) to correct her idiosyncratic syntax or to rein her in. As a consequence, the book suffers from a lack of judicious pruning; it is at least fifty pages too long.

The people who dislike this book--and there are many of them--either are impatient with this torrent of words, or they hate the subject matter. It's difficult to talk about what many reviewers object to without giving away the plot. I can only say that I found the central relationship of the story--a twisted knot of love, frustration, and abuse--to be entirely realistic--and Hulme's exploration of it quite brave. On the other hand, I also felt emotionally manipulated, too, with the insistent  you-must-look-at-this jabbing that is also the mark of an inexperienced author.

Unfortunately,  however, there are too many ways in which Ms Hulme was not courageous, and took the easy way out. She's a better poet than a plotter of story lines, and in the end she seems to have written herself into two dead ends. To get herself out of her plots binds, she resorts to not one, but two kaumatua* ex machina.  One I could accept, but two seems just lazy writing; you can practically hear the ropes creaking as the Maori gods are lowered down onto the stage and fix all problems. I just can't buy the final ending; it was too neat and pat. Many people actually find it offensive. I found it unrealistic, even given the isolation of the community and the suspicions of outsiders that could--perhaps--make such an outcome possible.

My main objection to the book, however, was not the dreamy and all-over-the-place language, which I actually enjoyed, or the harsh subject matter, or the plot holes. No, my main problem was with Kerewin herself. How I wish she would just get off the stage, maybe strumming a few bars of Concierto en Aranjuez or something equally tasteful as she exited, and leave the story to Simon and Joe. Even Ms Hulme admits that she would have made her main character less like herself if she had actually thought her work had a chance of being published. She is the biggest Mary Sue** I have ever encountered in literature--not the flame haired emerald-eyed Mary Sue of romantic fiction, but her equally objectionable sister, the Angstly Artist. Who does everything perfectly. Who speaks at least four foreign languages. Who can kill with her hands. Who collects fine glassware and exquisite Japanese pottery. Who sings so beautifully that a raucous pub crowd grows still to listen. Who knows all the healing arts.  Etc, etc. It was all too self-indulgent and fanzine wish fulfilment for me. Just for my own amusement, I went to www.ponylandpress.com/ms-test.html and went through the checklist for possible Mary Sue alerts. Unfortunately it too long for me to save as a screen snapshot, but here is the result:      

Ultimately, Kerewin's character ended up ruining the book for me--or rather, it was symbolic of the many, many ways in which My Hulme's self-indulgent meanderings  were not served well by her editors. My friend Catherine was right; I ended up not liking the book, but probably for not the reaons she imagined. Some people may be more patient with these excesses: as www.tv tropes.com said when discussing this book, your own mileage might vary.

        *an elder/elders
** embodiment of the writer's wish-fulfilment fantasy.

I am not sorry I read The Bone People, but I cannot really recommend it.
2 1/2 stars ( OK. she did call V.S. Naipaul a "misogynistic prick" when he said there were not any great women writers. Maybe 3 Stars.)


At one point in the story, admidst Kerewin's nightingale singing in the pub, she threatens a blokey group of Australians with her deadly Ninja hands. Next stop: Perth, Australia.


  1. Maybe I'll pick another book for my New Zealand stop. This doesn't sound like something I would enjoy reading.

    You write great reviews, Gaeta!

  2. This is why I kept waffling on this book, ultimately going with a volume of short stories, one by this author. So we'll see if short fiction is better for her style!

  3. No, I'm actually glad I read this one. After all, it's the most famous New Zealand novel....that almost no one reads! I think of her as more of a poet than a novelist.