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The Bone People, Keri Hulme, Penguin, 1987 (c1983), ISBN 0-14-008922-5, $7.95, 445pp.

This book had been in my Alexandria Digital Literature recommendations list for what seems like forever. When it first showed up, I thought it was a fantasy novel by a new author, but as I did some research into the title, I found out that, while that description is somewhat true, it also is misleading. For one, the fantasy elements are there, but they are definitely in the back seat (well, actually, I think they may be in the trunk). And Keri Hulme is definitely a new author (as far as I can tell, this is her only book), but she won numerous awards for this book, including the 1985 Booker Prize. (As yet another aside, I find that I may have to look into these Booker Prize winners–this is the second winner, the first being Byatt’s Possession, that I’ve liked.)

Set in New Zealand, the book concerns three characters: a 1/8th Maori woman who is independently wealthy from having won the lottery and is content to stay in a tower that she has constructed and disavow contact with the townfolk; a Maori man with a bit of a drinking problem, but a lot of family in the area; and a young mute boy, who has been adopted by the man and who adopts the woman. It’s a love triangle, yes, but this is one case of very tough love (to say too much more would give it away). There are secrets and lies herein.

I liked this book a lot, but I’m not ecstatic about it. I think this may be because the revelations here are not new to me (although I would not characterize them as “old hat”). I’ve seen some of these surprise techniques used already in books like Iain M. Banks’ The Wasp Factory and Jonathan Carroll’s From the Teeth of Angels. However, for me to compare this book to those two indicates some of its appeal for me. I also thought it was overlong, taking a bit too much of a leisurely pace in its unfolding of events. The strange formatting wherein some of the character’s thoughts are expressed through indented paragraphs is inconsistent, and annoyed my sense of construction.

Finally, I think I also would have been aided by some knowledge of Maori culture and New Zealand fauna before reading this book. In its constant use of animals and language that I was unfamiliar with, it resembled a genre work, and I was able to move through this without difficulty, but I think I would have had a more worthwhile experience had I been able to subsume more of the unknown.

[Finished May 1999]


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