Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Bone People - Keri Hulme - an extraordinary novel

    You know how you go into a bookstore, looking for something, you're not sure what?  And you ask quietly to the book goddess, "help me find something that will surprise me with how good it is," as you wander the shelves?  That happened to me a week ago.  I went into the bookstore, my little indie book store left on the west side of town, Perfect Books (once long ago I worked here for two months, before I got another job with more hours).  And this book, which  Chris at Stuff Dreams are Made Of has made mention countless times as one of his favourites, was there.  So being curious, and remembering Chris loves this book,  I picked it up.  I had picked it up a few times before, but wasn't ready for it then.  This time, I read a few lines. And then a few more.  And then several pages.  And then I had to buy it. (PS.  Go right to where the story begins, the first two pages won't make sense until after you've read the book. Trust me.)

In the meantime I read Doctor Sleep, and it was so good (review will follow!) that I carried around The Bone People for a few days before I could begin it.  I started seriously reading it Thursday, stayed up until 3 am on Friday night, and finished it yesterday afternoon.  I'm so glad I could read it at home, because two thirds of the way through I was crying so hard that I couldn't see the pages.  "Crying my eyes out" is the phrase I said to myself as I wept over the pages.  It's been a long time since I cried this hard over a book.

The Bone People is about Kerewin Holmes, a reclusive artist hiding away from the world in a tower she has built, and the urchin who steals into her home, Simon, and his foster-father Joe Gillayley.   It is a retelling of the timeless tale of how a curmudgeon has their heart healed by an orphan child.....but it's much more, much richer than that.  There is Maori myth and legend woven into this grand novel.  There is most of all, love, and the idea of what makes a family. Each of the three is carrying a great burden, that makes it too easy for them to react in hurt when they perceive rejection.  But what makes this novel so great, is the determination they each find as they realize that they were made for one another.  They are the true family they each were seeking.  It's a beautiful novel, and so evocative, so real, that for me Kerewin Holmes and Joe and Simon Gillayley are alive somewhere in this world.  The novel is set in New Zealand, and I have come out of this book feeling like I know a little bit about how the land feels, what it is like to live there.  Especially, the ocean.  Kerewin the artist lives the by sea, and fishes a lot.  Simon came from the sea, washed in on a terrible storm, and mute, so no one knows who he belongs too.  And for Joe the full Maori, who takes in Simon,  the sea is where their people originated from, where life has its source.  The sea comes alive in this book, the many colours it has, the shades and the moods, the wind, the sky, the world that Kerewin and Simon and Joe live in.  I could feel the cold, the sea, I could hear the waves, see the different light in the sky depending on when Kerewin is looking at it. I could feel their emotions, and sympathize with each character even though they did things that were mean, even cruel.  One of the great wonders of this book is that despite the terrible act it the center of it, the revelation of abuse, I kept reading because even as I despised the act, I liked the characters so much.  And the characters struggle with it too, they don't hide from it. 

 There is something about this book that made me feel like I was right there, in the story somehow, intensely involved in it.  There is a timeless quality to it, so that it could be anytime this past century.   The story is woven in such a way that the three together do go together, and I got to see how they are drawn to one another, how they see what they love in one another.  I saw their inner thoughts revealed, that bares the soul of these characters to us, and makes it a story that wraps itself around me, stealing into my own heart and soul.

I keep wondering what Kerewin is doing now, and how Simon is, how happy he is.  They seem like real people and ought to be alive somewhere in New Zealand.  Like we have dipped into this year in their lives, but they have gone on.  Which is the best kind of story.   Love, and family, and guilt, and terror, and hurt, and healing.  This book will break your heart, it broke mine, it broke me open, and then pulled me back together again just like it did for each of the three characters.  There is myth and magic here too, of a kind that makes the reader realize that sometimes, there is forgiveness, here, and now, not in some afterlife.

It's wonderful.  It's beautiful.  It has the most exquisite use of language that I have seen in a novel in a long time:  Keri Hulme made words go together: stonegreyblue, sneakthievery, gentlefingered, laughingeyed, that are right.  They make sense, in this book.  As if putting these words together, makes the world seem new, and a little strange, so the events in this story are like a story told around a fire.  A rhythm, a song, a creation myth, for the beginning and the ending, of the family.   The words like this are like poetry, without being poetry, in the novel. So the book is about a new way of seeing things. It's magical and marvelous and grounded in reality - all the myth I am talking about, isn't the center of the story, it lurks in the background, breaking in only when the characters are completely broken down also.  Which is when myth can come in, when people are open to the numinous to come into their lives.  Which makes this is a wise novel, too. 

It won the Booker Prize in 1985.

Other reviews:
Boston Bibliophile
The Guardian Book Club
Raging Bibliomania
Lizzy's Literary Life
Farm Lane Books Blog
DogEar Diary
Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of 
An Adventure in Reading


raidergirl3 said...

Extraordinary novel indeed! I just loved this when I read it in 2007. It's funny, because it is not a book that I should have liked, but I really did.

This was the line from my review that makes me remember the book : "And while I can't say the characters were terribly likeable - there were mean streaks in each of them, I still rooted for the three of them together."

Such a great book; glad you enjoyed it too. Your review reads like I felt after reading it. Well done!

Susan said...

raidergirl: I'll come look for your review! I was trying to find everyone who had blogged about it though so many reviews were written before I was blogging, as was yours! lol I know what you mean - the characters did have mean streaks in them - but they weren't one dimensional, and their cruelty had reasons for being there, so it was part of what made them complex people, for me. I rooted for them too, so much. I'm so happy my review brought back how you felt after reading it too! That's kind of awesome, isn't it?

Sarsafrass said...

I have been meaning to read these for ages, thanks for the motivation to finally pick it up off my TBR pile!
I had to Google that bookstore - I love that place, but had never really paid attention to it's name!

Susan said...

Sarsafrass: LOL to Perfect Books - I sometimes forget the name too. I don't know why, it's clever, and the bookstore is lovely. I just think of the bookstore on Elgin Street. I suppose it's not in the west end, it's in central Ottawa, so that wasn't quite correct. Do you go in there often?

I really hope you enjoy the novel, too.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I need to try the Bone People. I had put it on my TBR book when I had first heard about it.

Jeane said...

This is such a great book. Even though I cringed at some of the things that happened to people in it, I kept on reading, like you, because I cared about the characters so much. It was a beautiful, painful story and your review is spot-on.

Literary Feline said...

I have been wanting to read this book for years. I am so glad you enjoyed it, Susan. One of these days I really will get to it.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

Oh dear! I'm trying so hard NOT TO ADD ANY MORE BOOKS to my to-be-read list and now you write about this book and it makes me want to read it! :)

Emily Barton said...

Oh, man. My brother told me to read this over 20 years ago, but I still never have. I see I really must.

Aarti said...

I really enjoyed this book, too. It was so powerful, but also so, so hard to read. I am so glad you read it, too!

JaneGS said...

Wow--it sounds like it was good you waited to read it until you were ready for it. I'm really intrigued by the language aspect of it, and I tend to like that Silas Marner type of story anyway.

I will definitely put this on my books to explore list.

Great review--I love your enthusiasm, and I'm looking forward to your review of Dr Sleep.

Geranium Cat said...

I love books that leave you wondering what is happening to the characters because you've become so involved in their lives :-)

Vintage Reading said...

Susan, you've sold it to me! Adding to tbr list ...

Susan said...

Diane: I do think you will enjoy it, when you are ready for it.

Jeane: thank you so much! I'm really pleased that my review is bringing back so many good memories of the book for so many others who have read it. I hadn't realized that you and a few others had the same view of it until I read your review after I wrote mine! lol It is not an easy book to read in places, though it is rewarding and lovely and forgiving. I'm so thrilled you had the same view of it I did.

Literary Feline: when you are ready, Wendy, it will be quite the book to read! lol

Margaret: LOL!! I'm returning the favor!! YOu've added so many to my list lately.... :-D

Emily: Yes. It will wring your heart out and make you remember what books can be like. It is among my favourite books for this year, and certainly is still ringing through me - it's one of those books that is an experience while you read it. Ok, you have to read this when you are ready to! lol

Susan said...

Aarti: It was both difficult, moving, and beautiful, wasn't it? Quite extraordinary, and unlike anything else. And those characters are still powerful for me, a few weeks now since I read it. This doesn't happen often. I enjoyed your shared review so much, and liked the comments you both had about the book.

Jane: Oh yes, I do hope you can get to this one day. It really is quite a book. Though some people find it disturbing also, so be prepared, this book is intense. Thanks for the delight in my enthusiasm! And yes - my Doctor Sleep review is coming up!

Geranium Cat: Yes, those are the books and the writing that become part of us, aren't they? That somehow reach in and become part of us. The only way I can describe it now is that it's reverberating through me, almost a resonance. It's a wonderful feeling when a book speaks to me like that. It feels like it's been a little while since I've wondered what happened to characters. Good point, and interesting to think about. I realize that for series I'm reading, I don't have to wonder because I have the other books to read in the series so the conversation is ongoing! lol

Vintage Reading: Yaaay! I do hope you enjoy it.

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