Dr Dee Michell reflects on The Bone People by Keri Hulme.
In 1965, Irish writer John McGahern’s novel, The Dark, was banned in Ireland because of its “indecent or obscene” content. The content was a detailed account of child abuse—physical, verbal, sexual—by the child’s father, with the suggestion that a priest might also be sexually abusing the boy.
Twenty years later, Keri Hulme’s debut novel, The Bone People—which has the physical assault of a small boy, a child in foster care, at its centre—won the 1985 Booker Prize. Hulme was the first New Zealander to win the Booker, but the win was “all too disturbing for many, including some of that year’s other judges” (Shaffi).
While judges Marina Warner and JW Lambert, along with St John Stevas, supported The Bone People, Nina Bawden opposed the book because of its violence, as did Joanna Lumley…
‘This is over-my-dead-body stuff for me,’ wrote Lumley…in a letter to her fellow Booker Prize judges… ‘I can’t bring myself to approve any of it; its poetry (to me) is whining, and its subject matter finally indefensible.
‘We can’t have a book on childbattering, no matter how lyrically observed, carrying off the gold’ (Shaffi).
The Bone People is a long and difficult read—because of the violence—but also strangely compelling because it is beautifully written; it is a story “lyrically observed”.
Simon, a mute boy of about 6 or 7 years of age, lives with his foster father, Joe Gillayley. He is clearly a traumatised child—the survivor of a shipwreck and perhaps of early abuse—whose behaviour is puzzling for many in the community, including his teachers and his foster father; the community see him as having “a touchpaper temper… Also he specialises in sneakthievery and petty vandalism”. Plus, “… he’s not all there. Emotionally disturbed or something” (Hulme, 42).
Simon—of apparently Irish heritage—disappears so often he wears a pendant with his name and address:
1 PACIFIC STREET
PHONE 633Z COLLECT
CANNOT SPEAK (Hulme, 21)
One day Simon (also known as Sim, Haimona and Himi) wanders, breaks into really, the home of local artist, Kerewin.
Kerewin initially sees Simon as “… The vandal, the vagabond, the wayward urchin, the scarecrow child…” (Hulme 45).
Kere’s aware she’s not been entirely considerate of Simon during his ‘visit’ but the boy reports to his father that she’s been “kind and patient” even though she was taken aback by his sudden presence. “That was impressive” says Joe, because generally he’s either treated as an idiot or deaf as well as mute…” (Hulme 60)
Kerewin Holmes (obviously Keri Hulme) is a biracial woman who identifies with Maori culture. Kerewin wasn’t abused as a child but we never find out why she was pushed out of her family. Her estrangement from family and sense of alienation from the broader community is externalised by the home she has built, a multi-story spiral tower on the edge of the beach and at the fringe of the community, where she lives self-sufficiently—for the most part.
Joe is Maori and was in kinship care; he was given to his grandmother when he was 3 years old. The extent of harsh treatment is not clear, but Joe admits his grandfather was “hard on me” and his grandmother “wasn’t one for letting kids take it easy” (Hulme 277).
Joe once had dreams of being a teacher but is now a widower working in a factory. He’s worked steadily and owns his home freehold.
Simon and Joe offer Kere a sense of family. The 3 even go on a fishing holiday together during which Kere confronts Joe about his behaviour; she has recently discovered that Joe whips Simon mercilessly.
Kere had earlier become aware that Joe is ‘strict’ but decided it wasn’t her business, not until she sees the weals and gashes on the boy’s body.
Then she hesitates:
What the hell do I do now?
O, I know what I’m supposed to do. Ring up Child Welfare and report the bloody mess [Simon] is in.
“Excuse me, I know a small child who’s getting bashed…it looks like he’s been thrashed with a whip (but I hope to God no).”
I can just hear it.
“You’ve known him how many weeks and you never suspected he was getting badly treated!”
“Uh, well, he’s very good at hiding his pain.”
I can just hear it.
She is furious with herself, not only because she must have hurt him.
Joe, you good kind patient sweetnatured gentlefingered everloving BASTARD
But I knew all along, herr Gott, Something always felt wrong.
No, I didn’t.
I had suspicions when he was here with his face battered.
But he never said it was Joe, and Joe didn’t admit it was him.
I’ve seen him slapped.
Hell, everyone slaps kids (Hulme 180-181, emphasis in the original).
Joe commits to henceforth only hitting Simon with Kere’s express permission.
It’s after the holiday that Kere hears about Joe’s family’s complicity in Simon being regularly beaten. Kere is at the pub and being quizzed by a member of Joe’s family concerned about Simon’s wellbeing:
“You know Kere, the number of times we have, Piri has, fixed up poor Himi…he used to come round with terrible weals on him, didn’t he Piri? Terrible cuts, and we couldn’t say anything to Ma, because she’d get too upset. And we couldn’t do anything, because you feel sorry for Joe being alone and all…but that poor kid! God sometimes he could hardly walk… (Hulme 347).
Then comes the day when Simon visits a problematic local character, only to find he is dead. Understandably shocked and horrified by the death, and terrified he’ll be blamed it, Simon goes to Kere’s but she is too preoccupied to find out what is bothering Simon. Simon trashes a treasured guitar, gets sent home, and breaks the windows of all the houses on his way there.
In a later phone conversation, Kerewin berates Simon:
Her voice is strange. It rasps; it grates; it abrades. She can’t touch him physically so she is beating him with her voice. What she says drums through his head, resounding in waves as though his head were hollow, and the words bound back from one side to smash against the other (Hulme 373-374).
Kerewin then permits Joe to beat Simon who—unusually—retaliates and stabs Joe with broken glass. Both end up in hospital. Simon is in a coma.
The Bone People was written over something like 12 years (some sources say 20) and was then rejected by every major publisher in New Zealand. It was accepted by “a tiny feminist press in New Zealand led by three women…” (Jordison).
The initial print run was 2,000 copies. When they sold out and so did the next 2,000, Spiral approached Hodder and Stoughton in New Zealand, who shifted another 20,000 and brought it to the attention of the Booker judges (Jordison).
Generally, critics are divided. Some are thrilled by her work ; others think the way Hulme takes up the issue of colonisation “breaks down too easily into bad writing and spiritual nonsense” (Haq). Several commentators go so far as to suggest Hulme won the prize because the judges “were not a little influenced by the story of Keri Hulme’s heroic efforts to write and publish her novel” (Kakutani).
As far as I know, the story of Simon is fictional, coming to Hulme in a dream. Yet Hulme demonstrates an awareness of trauma and the oft unwitting repetition of child abuse by those, like Joe, who haven’t reckoned with the emotional legacy of their own childhood.
By the time the tumult had died down around Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize win, a new trend in publishing was emerging, that of people telling their stories of being, often, brutalised by parents and guardians when they were children. In the vanguard of this trend is Pulitzer Prize winning American historian, Richard Rhodes’ A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood (1990) in which he speaks of enduring 2 years of exploitation and violence by his stepmother.
Keri Hulme’s fictional story, then, is fact for all too many people around the world. As indeed it was for John McGahern.
Wahid Haq (2014) Critical response on The Bone People by Keri Hulme. Academia.edu.
Sam Jordison (2009) Booker club: The Bone People by Keri Hulme. The Guardian, 20 November 2009.
Kakutani, Michiko (1985) Books of The Times. The New York Times, 13 November 1985.
Theresa Schiavone (2016) Child Abuse in American Storytelling: Masterful storytellers can make it possible to speak not only of child abuse, but of the abuse of ‘our children’. ChildAbuse & Neglect, 54, 78-85.
Sarah Shaffi (2022) How Keri Hulme’s The Bone People changed the way we read now. The Booker Prizes, https://thebookerprizes.com/