Blog: Another Read Through

June Book Review

July 22, 2017 // monthly book review

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.

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