Aotearoa (New Zealand) is a land that has known two waves of immigrants. First were the Māori who arrived with their gods in wakas (canoes) between 1320 and 1350. Isolated from their roots, these people quickly developed a unique culture with a language, mythology, and artistic tradition that was wholly independent from its ancient Polynesian roots.
The second group of immigrants were the Pākehās (Europeans) who introduced several changes to the Māori way of life. Writing was adopted as a means of sharing ideas, and oral stories and poems were converted to a written form. Potatoes introduced an agricultural revolution, and of course there were the usual guns and germs. However, by and large the relations between these two peoples managed to remain peaceful.
Fast forward to the twentieth century. The Māori are still with us. Like all peoples with ancient roots, they’ve evolved and continue to evolve as circumstances force individuals and communities to adapt their lifestyles to unexpected changes thrown their way. Not always an easy task, and one the protagonists of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People are forced to deal with in the most unexpected of ways.
(I salute the breath of life in you)
A love-pain triangle
Kerewin Holmes is part Māori, part European, and also an artist estranged from her family and her art. She lives alone in a literal tower, seeking to create the way she was once able to create, by inserting pieces of her soul into her work. Her world is upended when a small mute child breaks into her tower and into her heart.
Simon P. Gillayley is the mute child. He is very intelligent and can communicate by writing; however, he is also very strong-willed and he comes with a whole bunch of triggers. He has absolutely no regard for personal property, and steals whatever interests him. He is a source of immense love and immense frustration to his Māori foster father. Also biologically he is European.
Joe Gillaylee is a Māori widower who lost his wife and biological son to the flu shortly after rescuing a shipwrecked Simon. He loves Simon deeply, but is also extremely frustrated by his behavior. He tries to be the best parent he can, but both subjectively and objectively falls short, and both he and Simon suffer as a result. They still love each other immensely.
All three characters suffer from ancient hurts, and they are all nursing an emotional wound that needs to be healed. They need each other, but also demand from each other, and by demanding, only end up hurting each other. Love is intertwined with pain. The stronger the love grows, the more pain ends up being inflicted, emotional and physical, and this makes it harder for everyone involved – the characters, and me as the reader who gets to experience everything from all three perspectives.
Two meres, patu, pounamu, both old and named, still deadly.
Many stylized hooks and pendants, hei matau.
Kuru, and kapeu, and kurupapa, straight and curved neck pendants.
An amulet, a marakihau, and a spiral pendant, the koropepe…
…Jade of my heart. Your name a litany of praise; kahurangi; kawkawa; raukaraka; tangiwai; auhunga, inanga, kahotea; totoweka, and ahuahunga…
It’s all there.
Okay. There are a lot of Māori words and sentences in this book, and they are not explained. All characters are native speakers, and they feel no need to explain their words to non-native readers like me. Fortunately, the author was compassionate and included a barely adequate dictionary at the end. This leads to a rather unique reading experience as I both fell in love with the new language, but was also frustrated by it. IMO, footnotes would have been preferable, but no one asked me.
There is magic in this book, a magic that is uniquely tied to New Zealand. However, it will take a while for the characters to discover it. A lot has to happen first, and discussing the magic kind of spoils the story.
This is the story of Kerewin, Simon, and Joe, and the book does an excellent job of offering all three perspectives both inner and outer, which meant I got to identify with all three on a very emotional level, and this is how you should approach the book. If you try and approach it from a rational perspective, you’re going to end up doing a lot of yelling and swearing as the characters keep on communicating and miscommunicating, deliberately and accidentally misinterpreting each other, which is basically what families do, and that’s what I loved about this book, which tells a very familiar story, in a very beautiful way, using a Maori setting.
In particular I loved the dynamic between Joe and Simon. Simon is very much a changeling. Shortly after Joe rescues him, his wife and son pass away, and he is left alone with a pale skinned, wild and destructive, child who was quite literally given to him by the sea. Joe has no choice, but to love Simon despite his wild ways because how can he not. They both need each other.
There are also references to other stories in this book, and these help connect the story to the wider fantastic traditions that many of us enjoyed reading when growing up. Kerewin has a fondness for hobbits, and she seriously debated whether to build a hole instead of a tower, but the tower won out. Mainly because she had a fondness for spirals, which are very much part of her Māori heritage, and also a recurring theme throughout the book. All-in-all, it’s a very worthy read, and very much a book I could see myself revisiting.
Kindness heals and hurts
The Omer today is kindness in kindness, which both works and doesn’t work with this book. The story starts with an initial kindness when Kerewin opens her tower to the strange child who broke in, and Joe himself showed kindness when he adopted Simon as his own. However, these kindnesses which blossomed into love also paved the way for cruelty and pain. One can easily lead to the other, and it’s not always easy to tell which from which. But then kindness allows you back in again to help heal the pain which could only have been caused by a person who was initially perceived as kind. It’s a spiral so maybe it actually does work. After you read the book, you can let me know.
Keri Hulme, a Māori, grew up in Christchurch and Moeraki, New Zealand, and has written many poems and short stories.