The Bone People by Keri Hulme; 3.25 (out of 5) stars
I know that the first time I read this, I really didn’t understand it. So probably that 1 star wasn’t fair since it was (at least partly, if not mostly) my fault. I am somehow both not entirely sure why and in total understanding of why I didn’t get it last time. I feel like so much of what I didn’t see last time was obvious this time, and I also still feel like I’m missing quite a bit, and unsure of things at the end.
First – a complaint about the language. I love that she weaves Maori words or phrases into the book, but the translations are terrible. (Not the actual translations; I don’t speak Maori so have no idea how accurate they are, but they way it’s done is terrible. They are translated in the endnotes, by page number. Not all the Maori words are translated, and the ones that are aren’t noted in the text, so you’re constantly flipping to the back to see if this particular Maori word is one of the translated ones. But the page numbers they cite are wrong, so you have to look around the page number you’re on. Also, if a phrase has already been translated earlier, but used again, it’s not translated again, so if you don’t remember its meaning (and really, how could you?), you have to scan the list of translated words to see if you can find the other mention of the word to figure out what it says. Really, how hard is it to endnote each word or phrase, and use the old/first number for the repeating words? It’s a total pet peeve of mine to not translate everything, so that really bugged me, too, but I was almost more annoyed with the difficulty of what was translated.)
Okay, that said and set entirely aside, this isn’t an easy book to read. It’s unusual, and uncomfortable, but that’s her intention. From the writing side, it’s odd in that the perspective sometimes changes back and forth (not like an every-other chapter sort of thing, but paragraph to paragraph) so we jump from Kerewin’s head to Simon’s head to third person, all in the same page. It’s inconsistent and comes out of nowhere at first and somehow it works but can be hard to get used to, and I think really threw me off last time I read this. Every so often she also changes tense but that might be more of an editing issue? It’s primarily in present tense but here and there she slips a verb or two into past tense. Again, strange and awkward, but I think intentional. The point of view shifts would normally be a problem, because we end up knowing things we shouldn’t or not knowing things we should, in a traditional book. Again, somehow this works here, but it also contributed to my confusion the first time around.
So the writing is a little tough. But also this story itself is part of what makes this hard to read. She writes about child abuse, but in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen done before. It’s the most realistic depiction I feel like I’ve read, in the way she shows the love the child has for his abuser, and the love the abuser has for the child. It’s so much more realistic in how gray the entire thing is. There are very few instances of black and white in the story. Even many of the beatings themselves aren’t as cut and dried as outsiders want to think they are, and she shows this. She also shows that it’s likely that the abusers are probably the best and even safest people to parent this child, in spite of the abuse. It makes me so sad to think of how we ignore some things in the face of others, and also that the people who hurt children are usually the ones who love them the most. And I don’t know that I agree that these children should maybe stay with the abusers, but I also don’t know that stripping them of that love is right either. So she gives food for thought along those lines. Shows that it’s complex and complicated, and it feels such an echo of real life; I hadn’t realized that other stories of abuse were just shadows, but this feels so filled in in comparison to others (even ones I thought were well done and complete).
But this isn’t just about child abuse. It’s also about finding your people and yourself, and (and this is where I get more fuzzy, which is too bad because I think it’s the crux of it) the resurrection of Maori life and culture. (“…we changed. We ceased to nurture the land. We fought among ourselves. We were overcome by those white people in their hordes.”) it’s about starting over, with the bones of a beginning, both individually and communally, and the bones of all the ancestors who came before.
There’s a lot to take from this and I must have missed literally all of it last time to not have written anything at all in my review. I’m glad to have reread this, even if I still don’t fully appreciate it. maybe with a 3rd reading?
Also, it was written in 1983 and has an asexual main character and terms for a “neutered personal pronoun” (ve/ver/vis). That must be pretty unusual.
“With the careless suppleness of the young, he has his foot nearly on his chest.”
“Between waking and being awake there is a moment full of doubt and dream, when you struggle to remember what the place and when the time and whether you really are.”
“There is a time, when passing through a light, that you walk in your own shadow.”
“I named it. One must name cats, people, whoever whatever comes close, even though they carry their real names hidden inside them.“
I’ve been reading so slowly lately that I only have a few books to choose from for May reads. I rarely read fantasy, but:
The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk; 3 (out of 5) stars
There is such love in this book that at times it’s a bit overwhelming. What a grand scope and idea. It took me a little while to get into it, and then a long time to read it (like at least twice as long as I feel like it should have taken) but I really did like what she was doing and I liked the story, the writing, the book itself. It wasn’t written entirely in alternating chapters of viewpoints, but it was close, and I was glad to be with Bird when we were with him, and with Madrone when we were with her.
The utopia she creates is, well, just that, and it’s a nice break from the dystopia that is in so many books, and in reality right now. But she doesn’t just create a utopia, she fights for it and argues for it, and I appreciate that. She makes a world where sexuality, gender, and race all exist but don’t matter. Class is mostly erased. Nonviolence is one of the only rules, and she doesn’t allow it to go untested. So it’s not just a story about this magical, wonderful place that feels like both heaven and an impossibility. She shows us how they got there and almost how to build it (except there is witchery and magic, probably because it’s impossible to create this otherwise) and at least in part how to sustain it and fight for it.
I really wish the cover had an obviously brown woman on it, though. Madrone is not white and there is no reason to misrepresent her this way. I hate that in my head, I kept picturing white people, even when I knew the characters weren’t white. (This is not the book’s fault; I understand that it is mine.) But it would have been nice if the cover of the book didn’t reinforce my bias.
There are many good ideas here, and interesting philosophical discussions. I also thought it was an interesting choice to put it in the future but the very near future, not even a few generations away. I’m glad I read this.
From her dedication, after mentioning specific children: “…and to all the new ones who must live in the future that we create or destroy with our choices today.”
“It was beautiful and fierce and fragile, like a lot of things.”
“‘War is the great waster, as much in the preparations for it as in the waging of it.'”
“‘The ends don’t justify the means,’ Maya said. ‘That was what I learned from Vietnam, from the war and the protests against it. The means shape the ends. You become what you do.'”
“‘What good is it all if we can’t defend it? And how do we defend it without becoming what we’re defending against?'”
“‘…peace can’t grow out of violence.'”
But she doesn’t just throw these platitudes out. She allows her characters to know the contradiction in living those values and their lives, and in meeting violence. I am glad that she takes this book where she does, that she doesn’t avoid the hard stuff, even in this utopia. I really appreciate what she did here.
Where She Goes by Kate Gray; 4 (out of 5) stars
I’m sad that this is the last of the Kate Gray books that are published that I hadn’t read, so I don’t have more to read (until she publishes more). I’m sad that when she’s writing prose that means she’s not writing poetry. I’m sad that when she’s writing poetry that means she’s not writing prose. She is so talented.
This book is beautiful. Physically, I mean; the cover is gorgeous, the paper, the printing. It’s a work of art in and of itself. And on top of that there are the poems.
The book is divided in two halves. The first half is well done, certainly, but the second half is just so…much. Every poem builds on the previous one, using a word or phrase (and sometimes a theme) from the end of the poem before to begin the next; it works so incredibly well to tie them all together and build this raft of emotion that just builds and builds from poem to poem. This last half of the book is astounding. (If the book was only this half it would get 5 stars for sure.)
My two favorites are two in a row from this second half, first Pleasure and Need and then The Flood:
Pleasure and Need
you are an island parting
a river, a knot in wood, an iris
in grass, a volcano
cutting clouds. Imagine your legs
are the river parting, the island
supple, a tongue. Imagine waves
wrapping your island
in the flow, my hold
on you firm,
now you firm beneath
the pull of me
my belly sliding down
my breasts dripping thick
rain rushing from hills sloped
like your neck once sinews of sand
you will remember white
kisses ringing each limb
water rushing sweet places as
you will rise up oh
The Mercy Room (alternatively titled Love Without Resistance) by Gilles Rozier; 2 stars (out of 5)
So there’s some nice language here and for me it’s an interesting story of questionable morality. I like what it does on that level. But we don’t get behind any of the character motivation and so while kind of interesting and with potential, I don’t really feel like it works quite well enough. But it’s a quick, easy, and thoughtful read, so I like it for that.
The issue of gender is unfortunately more of a party trick than a genuine, thought-provoking issue being tackled. In the beginning of the book I felt that Rozier seemed to be trying to write a woman main character but was doing it poorly, so so poorly, because the character felt so male but the author kept throwing things in that were supposed to make a reader think the character was female. I think, though, that his point is supposed to be that the main character is male, and the spouse (gender also unspecified, but assumed to be male) is female. Leading to the shock, I guess, of the relationship between the unnamed male main character and Herman. (Why else make it theoretically ambiguous?) So he wasn’t writing a woman badly after all. Except that there are so many things that make it so unlikely that the character is male. In the end then probably, Rozier wasn’t writing a woman poorly, he was writing the “trick” poorly. It’s just not well done or believable, and would have been far stronger a book and a story without the vagueness, which there really is no reason for. (For an example of writing a genderless narrator actually well, see Jeanette Winterson’s gorgeous Written on the Body. Not this book.)
There is something lovely in this book, but it’s not the “genderless” narrator aspect, at all. It’s the living through war (specifically the Holocaust and so add in issues of Anti-Semitism and discrimination, plus German vs Yiddish language) and every day morality in that situation, and maybe how you deceive yourself into thinking that your morality exists or is excusable.
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison; 5 stars (out of 5)
Wow. So I don’t like everything Dorothy Allison has ever done, but when I do like it, holy f**k I love it. This is beautiful and raw and real and honest and tearing and still beautiful. It’s an incredible statement and I cried and soared all the way through it.
“Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make.”
“Two or three things I know for sure and one of them is that telling the story all the way through is an act of love.”
See that? I’m not always an asshole when I review books. That’s 2 books in a row I’m giving 5 stars!