Keri Hulme's extraordinary first novel The Bone People deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1985; since then she has not written a lot (some poetry and short stories), and as far as I know has not followed up with a second novel. This might be because the novel concerns her herself so closely. The very unusual heroine Kerewin Holmes fits Keri Hulme down to such details as her part Scottish and part Maori ancestry, and the fact that she built her own home, and I'd be willing to guess more of the stranger propensities of Kerewin.

In the novel, Kerewin (also known as Kere) has built a tower, with her own hands, for her own pleasure, on her own land on the South Island or New Zealand, and fitted it with a voluminous library, and with whatever luxurious fittings she needs to hold her collection of jade, her staggering quantities of all kinds of alcohol, among other fine things she enjoys. She is a loner, very much a loner, having divorced herself from her whole family and renounced the company of the world. She gathers shellfish, she goes out in her boat to catch the finny kind, and she takes them back to consult cookbooks on how to do them best; as she does this she plays her guitar and drinks. Having won a lottery and invested well, this is all she ever needs to do.

She drinks a lot. She used to paint and draw, and now has lost whatever it was that gave her that power. In this solitary world, interested only in her aesthetic pursuits, but pained by the absence of her own creation, and free of human contact, she remains; until one day a small urchin child enters her tower.

She would throw it out: she has no kindness to the brat, but it's raining, and the brat has hurt its foot, so she lets it stay a little while. From a tag around its neck she learns its name (Simon), who to contact (one Joseph Gillayley), and that the boy Simon is a mute. From this the central relationship of these three begins.

Simon's history is never resolved, though Kerewin researches it and gets a little further than Joe had done when he had first found the boy. At an early age, three perhaps, the blond Simon had been washed up after a shipwreck that killed two adults. In the book we hear or sense his tormented recollections, without becoming certain what happened; and we learn a little of what made him autistic, wayward, independent, and with this strangely trusting.

Joe Gillayley is Maori, and he and his wife took in this Pakeha child and brought him up as their own. Joe's wife is gone now, dead, and Simon is all Joe has, and Joe is all Simon has. Until they meet the mysterious lady who lives in the tower. Kere doesn't want ties, but they both want someone like her. It's sort of a love story.

What I've written so far is the plot and background as they unfold early on. The long story after that is expanding on their relationships, as they go on holiday together, then go their separate ways. The secrets behind the love between Joe and Simon, the way each of the trio in their own way passes close to death, and the way the Maori powers living within the land have an ancient purpose.

The Maori myth of the colonisation of Aotearoa by great canoes only impinges a little on the story (and the Bone People of the title only obliquely explained): she could have written a similar book without it, on isolation and child abuse and trust, but the style of writing is full of myth and song and magic and dream, a compellingly literary style of great originality and exhilarating power. I was quite bowled over when I first read The Bone People many years ago and it immediately became one of my favourite books. Revisiting it, my impression is the same: a masterwork quite unlike any other.

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