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The Bone People    by Keri Hulme order for
Bone People
by Keri Hulme
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2005 (1986)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

Even though this book is the winner of the 1984 New Zealand Book Award, the Pegasus Prize for Literature and the 1985 Booker Prize, it had previously been rejected by some of New Zealand's major publishers. That it finally came to light is due to three women who brought it out themselves.

It is easy to see why publishers might shy away from this work. In addition to their stated objections of it being too large, too unwieldy, too different when compared with the normal shape of a novel, its use of language is most unusual, and it has many Maori words and phrases that are not translated at the back of the book. Yet it is the very unique use of language that helps to make the story so powerful. Hulme writes in her preface that she purposely works with the shape of words and thinks the reader understands subtle differences between bluegreen and blue-green and major differences between OK and okay.

This is the story of three lonely and desperate people, the reclusive artist Kerewin, the mute boy Simon and his violent, loving stepfather Joe. Each character lives on the edge of self-annihilation. Each has lost his family in some tragic way. They come together strangely, and for a while life gets easier, but then an unspeakable event occurs, and everything goes awry.

Throughout the work the Maori culture and heritage is woven, yet we are never anywhere but in the present where it is difficult to keep those roots alive. Kerewin, for example, is only one-eighth Maori but that piece informs her life and art and gives both a power hard for others to understand. At the same time, the struggle for balance in the modern world is so great that many turn to alcohol. This too is a heartbreaking element of the story. Though there is some ease at the end, it feels tentative, as if the slightest breeze will again throw everything over to what seems like an unending tragedy of fate.

Read this book and revel in the writing of a masterly creator of atmosphere and feeling.

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