The Bone People is a very unusual novel, and I’m not sure what I think of it. I would give an unreservedly enthusiastic review except for one overriding facet of the plot and an ending that radically changes course.
Kerewin Holmes is a wealthy half-European, half-Maori woman who builds a tower on the New Zealand seaside. She clearly identifies more with the Maori culture than the European. Kerewin is an artist who for some time has been unable to create art and has separated herself from her family. She fills her tower with beautiful objects and oddities and stays away from people.
One day she comes home to find a young boy hiding in her house and quickly discovers he does not speak. The boy takes a liking to her, which turns out to be unusual. Although the boy appears to be purely of European descent, the man who eventually arrives to pick him up is a Maori man she has seen bragging in a local bar, Joe Gillayley.
The boy, Simon, turns out to have been a shipwreck victim as a very young child, the couple found with him not his parents. His identity has never been discovered, and Joe and his family adopted him. However, Joe’s wife Hana and son Timote died later from an illness.
Simon has an unruly streak, and Kerewin finds him spending the day with her at the tower when he decides to skip school. Kerewin feels there is something wrong about both the man and the boy, but soon begins to care about them and even tries to find out about the boy based on an unusual ring in his possession.
The blurb on this book calls it a mystery and a love story, but if you go into it with that kind of expectation, you are going to be confused. The narrative style is unusual. It is told from multiple viewpoints, although mostly from Kerewin’s, and Kerewin makes up poetry or sings little songs almost constantly. As the novel progresses, more Maori cultural references and mysticism appear.
Spoilers in this paragraph: I would normally not reveal this important a plot point, as it appears well into the book, but I feel I have to in order to explain my mixed reaction. It takes some time before Kerewin discovers that Joe, who usually treats Simon lovingly, sometimes beats him savagely in an attempt to control his behavior. Moreover, the whole town appears to be aware of this but does nothing. Kerewin is torn because she feels Joe really loves Simon and bitterly regrets these beatings, but she does not seem to realize (nor is there a sense of this in the book at all) that this is classic abusive behavior. So, no one turns Joe in to the authorities. Kerewin’s solution is to beat the crap out of Joe, as she has training in aikido, and then to make him promise not to discipline Simon without talking to her. This solution is obviously a stupid one, although it works for some time. When things come to a head, the result is horrendous.
Then the novel continues from there in another direction, which is disconcerting. I could not reconcile my feelings about what happens to Simon with my interest in the book up until that point. In fact, having the novel almost immediately shoot off in another direction was very distressing to me, and even though it eventually returns to the original events and ties everything up, the direction it goes in the closing sections seems to belong to a different novel.
If the child in peril theme is not one for you, I can tell you that the ending is unexpectedly and, I feel, unrealistically happy, and delves into the theme of a re-emergence of Maori culture. Maybe I am viewing this novel through some kind of cultural myopia, but the ending seems to me to magically wipe out a lot of problems, including legal complications. I understand that this novel was severely edited from its original form, much against Hulme’s wishes, which makes we wonder what the original novel would have been like.