Don’t you love it when a book has a backstory?
I came across The Bone People entirely by accident. Obviously I have heard of it, since I’m on a small quest to read all the Booker Prize winners (nine novels left!) but I never actively decided to seek it out.
Last October I was in Amsterdam and I went to the rather wonderful used bookstore The Book Exchange (actually it was my girlfriend who told me where it is) and just saw a copy of The Bone People, snatched it up and read it two months later as part of the Manbookering group.
The Bone People is an odd little book. It is experimental with puns and strange linguistic turns of phrases with some Maori chucked in too (there’s a glossary at the back), yet it focuses on universal themes. There are lots of details, which require a reread. The are fully developed characters and it stays with you long after you’ve read it. In other words it’s a perfect Booker Winner.
The title The Bone People refers to the Maori philosophy of our ancestors and their descendants, which is one of the main themes of the book. The novel concerns three people: Kerewin, a headstrong independent woman who lives in a tower, Joe a recently widowed father and Simon, Joes adopted mute son who is prone to wild fits of destruction. Kerewin and Joe try to trace Simon’s past throughout the novel, also though when an event in the book creates tension both Kerewin and Joe seek out their past, which ultimately leads to reunification.
Other themes which dominate the book is child abuse, one of the tougher passages to read but Hulme deals with it in a unique way, presenting the abuser as someone who is hitting out due to a lack of communicative abilities. The theme of loneliness also prevails, as all three main characters are loners and they deal with it in their individual ways.
The book itself is episodic so there are certain set pieces such as the trio going for a holiday, the trio holding a party, the trio going to a pub. These scenes are fantastic and were what I considered a highlight.
Really the only flaw I found with the Bone People is that it is slightly overlong and that the optimistic ending is disappointing but if it were consisting of ‘negative’ moments (and there are a lot of those) then I guess the book would descend into parody. Plus it is an interesting look at how Maori mythology can be integrated with everyday life.
As I said reading it once does not do The Bone People any justice, such a rich, complex novel benefits rereads. Very rarely does one find a novel as unique as this one.