2015-11-20

Retroactive Metaphor:
Keri Hulme's The Bone People
—Review by Ada Fetters

I genuinely cannot decide whether or not I like Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. The writing itself is beautiful. The characters are strong. The plot is intriguing. The resolution, however, bothers me enough to make me question whether I like the book.

The story revolves around three characters: Joe Gillayley, his adopted son Simon, and their prickly acquaintance Kerewin. All three are trying to escape their past. Seven-year-old Simon was found on the shore several years ago, the only survivor of a terrible shipwreck that left him so traumatized that he refuses to speak. Kerewin is estranged from her family, mostly her own fault. Joe has led a life of disappointment and also can't seem to come to terms with his Maori ancestry.

The book explores themes of culture, love, violence and loss. These things feel very real.
I think I accidentally found one of the influences for The Bone People, that is, the diary of Opal Whitely. Am not saying that this takes away from the writing or makes it less beautiful, just that the kind of person who would write a book like The Bone People would very likely have enjoyed the writings of Opal Whiteley. Also, it is plain that she drew other elements of the book from things around her: the name of Kerewin Holmes, the main character, is very close to the author’s name, Keri Hulme. 

There are strong similarities between Simon Gillayley and Opal Whiteley, or rather, between Simon and people's perception of Opal, which is surprisingly different from the reality.

For those who do not know, Opal Whiteley was born in 1897. She was from a logging town in Oregon but later claimed to be the lost daughter of French nobility. She published several books about nature. Then she published a "diary" she claimed to have written in her childhood, the veracity of which is highly dubious. So here are the similar points between the Opal of the diary and Simon Gillayley.

Opal claimed her biological parents died in a shipwreck and that no one knew who she was. She claimed she was given to the first person to take her. Simon's biological parents died in a shipwreck. No one knew who they were. He was given to the first person to take him.
Opalites (people who take her story at face value) say that Opal didn't make a bigger fuss over her situation at the time because she didn't know who she was or couldn't say. Simon literally "couldn't say," since he was traumatized by the shipwreck and refused to speak.

Opal claimed her real name was Francois. In his mental narration, Simon calls himself Clare or Claro (means "noble" or "bright.").

Opal claimed to be French. Simon freaks out if he hears French spoken.

In her "childhood diary," Opal claimed that her "adoptive" mother beat her and was abusive. (Though in an earlier work she described her childhood as idyllic. Probably the truth lies somewhere in the middle). Meanwhile, Simon's adoptive father does beat him, often, in uncontrollable rages. Again these are similar if your perception is that Opal was telling the truth.

Simon is mute and is teased for this but chooses to express himself in writing. Opal claimed that she was teased for her failure to communicate properly because she often spoke French. Her childhood diary was (she claimed) the expressive writings of her younger self.

Opal wrote a prodigious amount for a seven-year-old. She also uses precocious words, terms, names and so on. She says things that an adult would find charming for a child to say, such as describing someone as "a multiplication table of comfort."

Simon is also seven. He is extremely precocious in his written vocabulary and in his behavior, to the point that he almost doesn't seem like he is seven.

The Opal of the diary was a child of nature. So was Simon.

The Opal of the diary was willful and did things that made sense to her but that looked disobedient and odd to grownups. So does Simon.

Now that I think of it, the writing in The Bone People is rather like that in Opal's "diary." While reading it I wondered where I'd read a rhythm and phrasing like this before. To wit, Opal wrote, "By the wood-shed is a brook. It goes singing on. It's joy-song does sing in my heart."

Bone People has a similar sing-song, the same use of surprising grammar and "it does" verbs. In this case the writing works to the point that the book is mesmerizing.
Both Opal's works and The Bone People are concerned with the land, with nature, with human brutality to each other and to nature. Both feature societal misfits. Both want to take you on a journey of magical realism.

I enjoy magical realism. Calvino, Rushdie, Eco, Kafka, Marquez, and others expect a person to suspend disbelief and go on a meaningful journey. You want me to think about what happens when a man turns into a beetle in a real-life apartment? I'm game. Steven Millhauser, the author of Dangerous Laughter and We Others, is my most recent favorite in this genre. I can't recommend him highly enough.

Thus it was mystifying to me that I was tripped up at the end of Bone People. The world feels real, the interweaving of Maori culture with the mainstream is earthy without being pretentious, the characters are strong, multidimensional, and (mostly) lovable. Even Joe is not simply presented as an ogre, but as a person who has endured a lifetime of depression and frustration. Kerewin is a prickly person who understands the difficult, willful Simon better than most people. However, even when she finds out about Joe's horrible way of dealing with Simon's behavioral issues, she does not alert anyone. 

Whether you agree with her or not, the decision was handled realistically for that character. Kerewin finds that the little town already knows. Joe's relatives already know. They do not like it but they do not want to separate the two by alerting the authorities, which would mean Simon becoming a ward of the state. Would that really be better for a troubled child who had such a hard time becoming attached to anyone? Kerewin reluctantly adopts a "wait and see" approach, resolving to give Joe an attitude adjustment if she sees him treat Simon harshly.

Eventually the authorities find out anyway (more on that in a bit) and Simon goes to the hospital, Joe goes to prison, and Kerewin takes off for lands unknown.

So we come to the ending, which is what tripped me up.

At the end, Kerewin contracts a fatal disease and goes to a wilderness cabin to die alone but is magically cured. I am not sure why this happened or why it then needed a deus ex machina cure. The "tacked on" aspect of both the disease and cure was annoying; the others had manifest problems that needed curing, so Kerewin needed one, too?

Meanwhile, Joe is deeply depressed but finds a spiritual elder and makes peace with himself. The book really sold that one, though, since the whole point is the uneasy existence of his Maori heritage in a predominantly Westernized culture. This was magical-- the voices of his ancestors speak, he comes into contact with powerful forces-- but it was very believable and a heartfelt resolution to a main plot point.

Simon was beaten so badly by Joe that he is in a coma. When he wakes up he has lost most of his hearing. This brings me to my next sticking point.

Joe Gillayley is an abusive parent. That isn't "tacked on." It is established that he beats Simon with his belt to the point that the kid's back has matted scars all over it, the bone underneath is visible (!) and the wounds are infected (I'd be surprised if they weren't). That's not even what gets him arrested and I do not need to say that this is terrible.

The book goes to great lengths to show that Joe and Simon are deeply attached and love each other. This struck something very true and sad about a child's emotional attachment to his caregiver, or the one person who has shown him any love in his short life, though that love comes with a heavy price. Not many books can do this convincingly but Keri Hulme definitely pulls it off. I was impressed.

So what is the problem, you ask?

Joe goes to prison for child abuse and when he gets out, Simon is allowed to go back to him. I say "Simon is allowed," because Simon communicates that he wants to do this and is so stubborn, with such behavioral issues, that the State allows him to go live with Joe. I guess that's what broke my belief in the story. Not that Simon would want to go back-- abused kids often want to do that-- but that it worked. Not only does a kid's wants cut very little ice with the government and the court, but...

1. The book establishes that Joe never formally adopted Simon. He is not legally the kid's parent.

2. This wasn't a one-off. There is clear evidence that the abuse was severe and ongoing.

3. Joe is a single male with a checkered past and a wrecked marriage.

4. The elephant in the room is that Joe is Maori and Simon is white, which makes the ending even more improbable. Is racism nice? No. Does it exist? Yes. Would it affect the court's decision? It would.

I am not trying to nit-pick little things. This is the ending of the book, the culmination of 500 pages, so the payoff has to be believable. Let's face it. A single Maori male with a history of bad relationships and no legal ties to this white kid, who'd put said kid in a coma, and who now has a prison record, would never get custody of that kid.

Weirdly, if the author had gone for all-out suspension of disbelief it would have felt more real. She spends a lot of time describing how Simon worked through the court system etc. in a way that is supposed to be realistic but is not. The ending to Joe's story, speaking to an ancient god and finding self-acceptance, feels more real because it goes all-out and is a meaningful resolution to a plot point. Kerewin lands between the two, with an odd mix of magic and reality that was singularly odd, even outside the fact that it was a solution to what seemed to be a manufactured problem.

At the end of the book, Kerewin, Joe and Simon are all together in a sort of patchwork family. I know this is supposed to be magical realism and the three main characters are supposed to be symbolic. There are clues that hint at Joe symbolizing Maori culture, Simon symbolizing European culture, and Kerewin is part Maori and part European. Perhaps that is why they had such atonal resolutions to their stories?

They all get together at the end and it's relatively okay. I guess. Except it isn't really. The metaphor is strange because if Simon is supposed to be European culture, why is he a nature-child, almost elemental? Why is Joe, Maori-culture, the powerful one who beats up Simon? Shouldn't it be the other way around?

I have tried to look at this several different ways, with several different metaphors, but none of them work well.

It should be said that the story in itself works the way it is. It works until the ending, which is so odd that it only works as a metaphor, but the possible metaphors do not work retroactively for the rest of the story. 


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Ada Fetters has been published in The Journal of Humanistic Psychology,  Copperwood Review, Humanist Magazine, Niche, Tertulia, Debris, Poetry Pacific Magazine, Pink.Girl.Ink  and most recently in Bewildering Stories.

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