Friday, May 25, 2018

Booker Book #19: The Bone People, by Keri Hulme

I am so glad I am past the books about British colonies written by colonizers (at least, I hope I am). Though many of them are heartfelt, there is something less engaging in reading about guilt, than in reading about the experience of the colonized. I guess I’d rather read a victim’s memoir than an abuser’s, no matter how enlightened the abuser may have become.

Anyway, The Bone People is only partly “about” New Zealand’s experience as a British colony. The history between Maoris and “Pakeha” (white folks) simply forms the backdrop to a three-part relationship puzzle.

I haven’t usually named characters beyond the protagonist in these reviews, but all three of these must be named, because they are all three protagonists. Kerewin is part Maori and all recluse. After a mysterious falling-out with her family, she used lottery winnings to literally build a tower and isolate herself in it, Bruce Wayne-like. She’s hard to sympathize with at first, as she cuts a somewhat unrealistic swashbuckling figure: a rich but failed artist who drinks too much, wears silk shirts, smokes cigarillos, and has some uncanny physical skills. But the other two will find the cracks in her armor.

The hinge that holds the three together is Simon, who shows up uninvited in Kerewin’s tower one day. She doesn’t like kids, but does due diligence in getting him back to his people. It’s a little harder than you might imagine, because he doesn’t speak. And he’s white.

Finally, the third panel in the triptych is Joe, Simon’s adoptive Maori dad, a factory hand, who does not make a great first impression on Kere. The way these three gradually become inseparable becomes more interesting even than the mystery of where the white boy came from and why he does not talk.

It’s a fascinating story, imbued with Maori tradition, yet I believe it encourages a moving forward into self-created identities. If you are reading it for the “big reveal” on Simon’s background, don’t bother. If you are reading it for a poetic meditation on art, love, and the meaning of family, then kia ora (good luck and good health).

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