This book took me a long time to read. Granted three weeks might not seem that long to some readers, but for the purposes of 10-10-12, it is. I am still not entirely sure what made this book such a slow read but I have some hypotheses. One, the book is quite long at 440 or so pages. Keri Hulme certainly did not cut down in size for this one. The type is also quite small meaning that the word count for this book has got to be sizably bigger than most of the books on my list. Two, the issue of narration. I would best describe this as a form of free indirect speech. There are three central characters in the novel: Kerewin, an artist; Joe, an alcoholic factory worker; and Sim, his adopted son who does not speak. The novel is variously narrated by any of these three characters and the transitions are not marked and often occur multiple times in a single page. I felt, at times, like I was reading a bad Virginia Woolf rip-off. Stream of consciousness narratives are not really my thing and this book re-affirmed that for me. Three, the novel moves at a very slow pace, almost glacially (this is only the case for the first 2/3rds of the novel). I suppose this is a reflection of North America’s lack of attention span, so this novel’s pace left me wanting more. Three and a half, the frequent use of Maori words, actions and concepts. I’m not against the use of other languages in “English” literature, but it does take me more time to get through something when I’m constantly trying to remember what those words or phrases mean.
All of this being said, I did enjoy The Bone People. A part of me thinks I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t under the gun of time constraints. By the novel’s end I was amazed at feeling emotionally relieved when certain events happened. For a long time, I was not connecting with the characters on any level but by the end I was. This is an epic novel, and if given the time it is rewarding.
Part of what makes it epic is the violence and trauma that rests at the heart of the three character’s relationships. This violence is left mysterious until the very last pages of the book so that I was constantly wondering what it could possibly be. This novel is a detailed study of the human psyche and how it can survive (or wilt) under incredible duress. Simon has clearly been abused, Joe has anger and grief issues, while Kerewin has her own mysterious falling out with her family and a loss of artistic talent. Hulme managed to keep me interested throughout the novel despite its length. A part of me wonders if I am missing some key level of New Zealand context which made this novel harder to read. I had similar feelings about Carpentaria (there are similarities between the novels), and it makes me wonder if this book won a Booker for its ability to speak subtly to the country’s context. I am not at all familiar with the Maori or the European colonization of the islands, but that tangled relationship clearly is important in the novel. I would not say it is necessary to enjoy the book, but it might be helpful in seeing the finer shadings of Hulme’s work.
I would recommend this book to people interested in New Zealand’s literature. And to people with time on their hands.
Hulme, Keri. The Bone People. 1983. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.