The Bone People by Keri Hulme

I originally picked up The Bone People as part of the Avatar: The Last Page Turner readathon, this is not normally a book I would have selected, as it is described as a love story which isn’t really my thing. However, being challenged to include indigenous authors in my TBR encouraged me to consider other books and I was intrigued by the inclusion of Maori myth in the storyline.

In the introduction Hulme explains that it was a challenge to get her book published because of how differently she writes. This is something I noticed straight away and for me it has some great positives, but also some poor negatives. Hulme goes off on a lot of tangents, which I really loved. I felt that she was giving you a back story to each character in a really effective way. Everything is not in chronological order, but is revealed to you as of when you need to know it in the story, building a rich array of characters. However, the somewhat random sequence of events often left me confused, not knowing who was speaking or whether the current event was in the past or present. On occasions I would be 4 or 5 pages into a chapter before I realised who was speaking or where they were, so would need to go back to fully take in what was happening. Having said this I would be interested in reading more of Hulme’s work to see if this is something that is refined later in her career.

The story follows the fates of three main characters. Kerewin, an artist living as a recluse, Joe, a widow trying to bring up his adopted son, and Simon, Joe’s adopted son of indeterminate age who is unable to speak.

Hulme does an amazing job of building these characters and making you feel true affection for them. Simon in particular is such an interesting character despite getting little time as the narrator, possibly reflective of his struggle to be a part of conversation due to his muteness. His story highlights societies lack of acceptance of those with disabilities through ignorance, for example lots of minor characters treat him as though he is deaf. All three of them are by no means morally good characters throughout, but their faults, on the most part, make they more realistic and readable. There is a major caveat to this though. The subject of child abuse is quite a large portion of this book and in my opinion it was not dealt with in a satisfactory manner. Without giving away spoilers I think that the abuser is treated too kindly in the writing and it left me feeling very uncomfortable.

I did, however, really enjoy the inclusion of the Maori language, with translations at the back of the book, as well as Maori legend and culture, it made me really intrigued to learn more about their mythology and way of life.

Conclusion: While I found this to be an interesting read, and I had no struggle with motivation to keep picking it up, I was left feeling uneasy with the topic of child abuse. To give it context the book was written in the 1980s, but I don’t think that should excuse this. I feel that the book ended in the only way it could to somewhat resolve the issues, but I did not enjoy the ending or feel any satisfaction from it. Overall I’m glad I’ve read it, but I don’t think it will ever be on a reread list of mine.

Rating: ★★★

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