We asked a selection of book people to tell us about the first time they read The Bone People, what they thought of the book, and what they think are the hallmarks of a classic and whether The Bone People hits the mark. Siobhan Harvey, Harry Rickets, Peter Simpson, Courtney Sina Meredith and Geoff Walker respond to these questions in the lead-up to the Great Kiwi Classic ‘book club’ panel discussion at Auckland Writers Festival on May 18.
We want to hear your thoughts too, and invite you to comment below or on the Great Kiwi Classic Facebook page (all comments made before Monday 12 May go in the draw to win one of three giveaway copies of The Bone People).
It was in post-Thatcher, inner-city South London that I first turned to Camberwell library’s worn copy of The Bone People. Its setting, its departure from my familiar attracted me. Then there was the book’s other landscape. Single, unemployed, processing childhood domestic violence and facing eviction because a flatmate with Munchausen Syndrome had used her non-existent terminal cancer to fleece our landlord, I found solace in how The Bone People’s interlocking saga of isolate Kerewin, troubled child Simon and his dysfunctional father, Joe, chronicled a story which paralleled aspects of my own. Reading it was an expedition through more than mere structure, plot and character. It was an excursion into the self, towards the sentient, emotional, vicious other sitting inside me.
For this ability to travel deep into the terrain of a reader’s psyche, history and heart, The Bone People is a classic book; and yet, for me, it has simultaneously outgrown this parameter. As a society we have long woven narratives of underdog success on a global stage so intimately into our cultural and psychological fabric that the subjects have attained proto-mythical standing. The story of a first novel set in the rural South Island, turned down by major publishers only to be printed by a small women’s collective, and that went on to win the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction before taking out the foremost English-language literary prize has propelled The Bone People beyond the status of literary landmark. Like that gangly giant who helped knock the Bugger off, Big Red and the Crushington born middle-distance runner who won our first Olympic athletic gold, The Bone People, its contents and the journey of its major achievements are a cultural legend.
I first read the bone people in 1984 in the original edition. Myths already surrounded the novel and its publication by a small collective, Spiral. One potent myth went that several mainstream publishers had turned the novel down, failing to realise its power and originality. The less mythic version was that several mainstream publishers wanted to publish the novel but thought it needed serious editing and cutting. Hulme (like Thomas Pynchon and many other writers before her) refused to accept any editorial intervention, and Spiral was happy to publish the novel unedited and uncut. Reading the novel at the time, I agreed with those mainstream publishers and, rereading it, I still largely feel that. I also remember feeling, as I do now, that the reader is encouraged to endorse, even enjoy, Kerewin’s beating up of Joe.
That said, the desire to establish certain literary works as Great Kiwi Classics is an understandable one. Literatures that have their acknowledged classics ‒ their Iliad, Aeneid, Divine Comedy, King Lear, Dream of the Red Chamber, Faust, War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Ulysses, Hundred Years of Solitude etc ‒ are literatures which are accepted to have enduring (and, through translation) transnational interest and significance. At the same time, what makes a classic is a bit of a literary game, one of those simple, complicated, exposing questions. Whatever criteria of classic status you put forward tend to make you sound either naïve or pretentious (even both). However, longevity and recognition (of some kind) are two of the less contentious. On these grounds, the bone people is already a Kiwi classic: it has stayed in print for thirty years (modern longevity) and it did, after all, win the Booker Prize. Other obvious fiction contenders would include some of Katherine Mansfield’s stories (‘At the Bay’, ‘The Garden Party’, ‘The Doll’s House’), Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry and Maurice Gee’s Plumb. Who nowadays actually reads classics, Kiwi or otherwise, is another story.
I first read the bone people immediately after its publication in 1984 and wrote a very positive review of it for The Press in Christchurch (later published in the Australian Book Review); it must have been one of the first pieces ever published about the book. I certainly had not read anything else about it when I wrote it. At the time I was teaching in the English Department at the University of Canterbury and was one of the people responsible for selecting the annual writer in residence at the university. We appointed Keri Hulme as our writer in residence for 1985 (jointly with Graham Billing) and in fact she was in residence at the university when her winning of the Booker Prize was announced, a great excitement for us. At the time she was working on completing her short story volume, Te Kaihau/The Windeater. I recall distinctly that I had a strong premonition that the bone people was an important book even before I read it. This was partly based on Keri’s quirky applications for the residency at Canterbury University which made reference to her up-coming and at that stage still-unpublished novel. I had been impressed by her story ‘Hooks and Feelers’, which won the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award back in 1975, and also by The Silences Between (Moeraki Conversations), her first book, a collection of poems published in 1982. I fell upon the bone people the moment it was published and found it to be everything I was anticipating and more.
I was hugely impressed by the bone people and immediately read it a second and third time. I was excited when it won the Booker Prize but not hugely surprised; it struck me immediately as I read it as being quite out of the ordinary. It’s probably at least twenty-five years since I last read the book but I still recall the almost Dostoevskian intensity of the passages concerning the relationships between Kerewin, Joe and Simon, which struck me as the most powerful scenes in the book, or indeed in any New Zealand novel. Even at the time I was aware that the bone people was an uneven book with some parts of it being much more successful than others. I felt that in the presentation of Kerewin there were some elements of fantasy and wish-fulfilment, as there were in the up-beat and quasi-mystical, though also very moving, ending. To use a comparison with Dante I found the ‘Inferno’ and ‘Purgatorio’ sections of the novel more convincing that the ‘Paradiso’ sections.
Here are a few sentences from my 1984 review, first published in The Press, and later reprinted in expanded form as ‘In My Spiral Fashion’ in Australian Book Review (August 1984, pp. 7-10).
‘The publisher’s name [Spiral] is precisely appropriate for The Bone People because the spiral form is central to the novel’s meaning and design; it is in effect the code of the work informing every aspect from innumerable local details to the overall structure…
These three damaged people [Joe, Kerewin, Simon]; man, woman, child; Maori, mixed-race, Pakeha – are caught up in a spiralling entanglement, sometimes centripetal and mutually sustaining, sometimes centrifugal and mutually destructive, which constitutes the substance of the novel. Initially drawn together by need and pleasure in each other’s company, their wary circular dance becomes a destructive vortex which flings them apart into separation, and extremity. Perhaps the most powerful, certainly the most painful chapters are those which relate their violent separation…and their subsequent, lonely suffering – Simon in hospital, Joe in prison and Kerewin critically ill. This downward and tragic movement is succeeded by an opposite process which moves towards a ‘comic’ resolution in which the three are reunited in a fragile but harmonious ‘commensalism’ at the novel’s end…
…The Bone People might be seen not only as a cultural document of immense significance to New Zealanders of all races and as a major novel in its own right, but also as an important advance in the development of New Zealand fiction, effecting a new synthesis of the previously separate Maori and Pakeha fictional traditions. I feel confident, too, that deeply grounded in the local conditions though it is, The Bone People will be found richly absorbing to readers of fiction wherever they happen to live.'
A classic book needs to be ambitious in conception and masterly in style and construction. It needs to have lasting power, to remain convincing thirty, fifty or a hundred years after its publication. It needs to engage with important human concerns and to deal with them sensitively and authentically. It doesn’t need to be perfect in every respect, but it needs to cut deeply into the psyche of its readers. I believe the bone people to be a classic in all these senses. A classic doesn’t necessarily have to impress all readers equally. I know many able readers who couldn’t finish the bone people just as I know others who feel the same way about The Luminaries. In order to be completely convinced of the bone people’s classic status I need to read the book again to see if it still rings my bells the way it did thirty years ago.
I read The Bone People in my late teens over an especially anxious summer at Te Henga. I didn't know if I wanted to be a lawyer but I was at Law School, I didn't know if I was brave enough to be a writer, but I couldn't stop writing. I remember reading the book and composing songs in between, falling out of love with my then love interest, falling back in love and looking at The Bone People as a kind of shore while I raged – a sweeping tide of hormones and ambition – in and out of ideas and ideals. Maybe it was a great moment to be immersed within a different kind of wilderness, maybe the book still haunts me because I entered its walls within a time of blossoming and a part of Hulme's fearlessness became a part of my own mad rush at the page.
A decade on from my summer with The Bone People, I've met many great authors living in exile and I've taken part in worldwide readings against oppressive political regimes to stand in solidarity alongside writers imprisoned, stripped of their freedoms, reduced to a number. I understand the great privilege it is to explore and translate the inner landscape, the remarkable, unstoppable force that cannot be named or picked out in a crowd.
So what makes a book a classic? Is it a soft place to fall, is it a weight that grounds you, is it pure escape? I think a great book is a living piece of art – part map, part mirror; something that both reflects and guides the self towards the horizon.
My well-worn copy of the Spiral Collective’s first edition of The Bone People, complete with Keri’s own illustration on the cover and extending to 470 pages (they wrote long novels then too), is a treasured possession. I remember reading it the first week it was published in 1984. I also own a copy of the first printing of the joint Spiral-Hodders edition that followed.
My strongest memories are of the visceral power and originality of the writing, like nothing I’d read in New Zealand literature before. The violence, the abuse, the fear – yes, they are shocking and often hard to read, but they are superseded by the novel’s unexpected redemptive qualities, which come to a head so beautifully towards the end with Hulme’s vision of an accepting Maori world in which everything has its place.
Yes, I think it’s a classic. Its heights are sublime. I do recall that as a working editor I thought at the time that it could have been a little more tightly edited, but that doesn’t prevent the humanity and the originality shining through.
[Note: The Bone People appears in some editions in lowercase (the bone people).]
About the contributors
Siobhan Harvey is a poet and nonfiction author. Her new poetry collection, Cloudboy (OUP, 2014) will be launched at the Auckland Writers Festival on Friday 16th May and is the winner of the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry. You can find out more about Siobhan Harvey in her Book Council Writers file.
Harry Ricketts is a poet, academic, editor and reviewer and he teaches English literature and creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington. Ricketts has edited collections of verse, critical essays, and other works of non-fiction, including an acclaimed biography of Rudyard Kipling. His recent books include Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (Chatto & Windus, 2010); 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, edited by Harry Ricketts and Paula Green (Vintage, Random House NZ, 2010), which was a finalist in the General Non-Fiction category of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards; and his ninth collection of poems, Just Then (VUP, 2012). You can find out more about Harry Ricketts in his Book Council Writers file.
Peter Simpson is director of the Holloway Press in The University of Auckland, where he was previously Associate Profeesor of English and Head of Department. He has also taught at Canterbury, Toronto and Carleton (Ottawa) universities. He has written and edited about 20 books on New Zealand art, literature and culture, including several on Colin McCahon and Leo Bensemann, about whom he has also curated exhibitions. His most recent book is Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (AUP, 2011). In 2012 he was awarded the Michael King Fellowship to write Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-53, which will be published by Auckland University Press in 2015. You can find out more about Peter Simpson in his Book Council Writers file.
Courtney Sina Meredith was born in 1986, she has a degree in English and Political Studies from the University of Auckland, where she also studied law and co-edited Spectrum 5. She has held international residencies, and her poetry and prose have been translated and published around the world. She describes her works as an on-going discussion of contemporary urban life with an underlying Pacific politique. Her first book of poetry, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick (published by Beatnik), was launched at the Frankfurt Bookfair in October 2012, where she also performed with Samoan dance group Tatau and took part in readings around the city. Courtney Sina Meredith is currently based in London.
Geoff Walker is an Auckland publishing consultant and editor, and commissioning editor for Bridget Williams Books’ digital-only e-single non-fiction series BWB Texts. Titles in this series by Maurice Gee, Paul Callaghan and Kirsty Gunn have recently been published in print form. Geoff stepped down several years ago as publishing director of Penguin New Zealand, where he was responsible for running Penguin’s local publishing list. Geoff Walker has published many of New Zealand’s leading writers, including Michael King, Maurice Gee, Lloyd Jones, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Anne Salmond.