Talk about a book that leaves you with a “book hangover” – I stayed up to the small hours hooked into Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and needed to sit and think on it afterwards. This was the first novel from New Zealand to win the Booker Prize, and the first debut novel to do so. It follows the friendship between Kerewin, a tough, odd, hermit-like woman (very much modelled on Hulme herself) and the friendship thrust upon her of Simon, a strange, mute child, found after a shipwreck, and his adopted father, Joe.
It’s a heavy book, with the protagonists struggling with isolation, trauma, abuse, illness, and alcohol, and yet, it’s not one of those dark “horrible things happen on every page” novels. Terrible things do happen, and generational trauma perpetuates itself, but it’s an oddly optimistic book. The focus is on healing, and how an awkward found family of very imperfect people can muddle forward through their own pasts and own weaknesses.
There’s also a subtle metaphor on culture and background in New Zealand – Joe is Maori, Kewerin is part-Maori and disconnected from her heritage, and Simon is white, and what eventually helps each of them comes from their own histories, but also, from their relationship with each other.