The Maori legends and culture are the centerpiece in Keri Hulme's The Bone People, Man Booker Prize winner 1985.
The story centers around Kerewin, a wealthy artist estranged from her family and living alone in a tower in Moerangi, Joe Gillayley, widower and foster father of Simon Peter Gillayley, a young boy found at the age of 3 washed up on a nearby beach and a devil of a young man who can't, or won't, speak. He's far too advanced for his age and a regular hellion.
The story begins when Kerewin finds Simon has broken into her home. They begin a tenuous relationship that eventually includes Joe. As the trio become closer, Kerewin discovers what Joe's family, all of whom live nearby, already knows: he beats Simon, leaving scars from the belt buckle he uses. Joe gets drunk, loses his temper when Simon throws something or does something he shouldn't (steal, break into other people's homes, etc.), and the beatings commence. The story isn't so much about the abuse, but about the relationship between the three: a confirmed virgin in her late 20s, early 30s, a man looking for love and acceptance, and Simon looking for a family and someone to accept and understand him, warts and all.
Keri Hulme creates a dream world that shares echoes with reality in The Bone People. She winds the central tale about the internal monologues of the three central characters, and some of the background characters, and adds poetry, songs, and a sense of otherworldliness into the story. The quick side tracks and segues into monologue, legends, and hints at back story are vertiginous at times and heighten the suspense of the central question of who Simon really is.
It took me a while to figure out that the Maori dialogue was referenced in the back of the book since there were no footnotes or links or mention of the translations and that was frustrating. I wanted to know what the people were saying and how it affected the story. It was like being part of a conversation where others are speaking a different language at times.
I did like the Maori legends and the dynamics of family relationships, or the lack of them in Kerewin's case, but not so much the hints at some problem between Kerewin and her own family and why she had no contact with them. There are sections when the story soars and the writing is clear as glass and others where style has overwhelmed the story. Too much was left unwritten and still unclear at the end of the book. Much of what was left out or hinted at should have been tied into the ending and wasn't.
The Bone People is a good book, but not a great one. It allows a peek into the Maori culture and offers some broad hints about the clash between Maori and Europeans that added texture to an already intricately textured book. The style is very different from most books I've read in the literary genre and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but took some getting used to in the beginning. All in all, Keri Hulme did a good job with the book but forgot the main reason for writing a story -- the story. I'm all for magical realism, and this book is definitely in that realm, but I'd have to give the overall effect a C+.