Hulme’s eccentric novel is an unwieldy piece of fiction, as poetic and confusing as it is engaging, a demanding and messy story. Set in New Zealand in the 1980’s The Bone People tells the story of the unlikely friendship between three lost-and-hoping-to-be-found individuals: Kerewin – thirtysomething oddball loner, failed painter and precociously intelligent human; Joe – heartbroken drinker, honor-bound individual, failing father of 7 year-old Simon; Simon – angry and frightened child, intelligent imp and needy youngster who can’t speak.Essentially, the novel hinges on the fact that all three characters must learn to come to grips with the difficult ghosts of their past in order to accept the precious friendship that almost instantly blooms between them when Simon (a frequent truant) shows up one afternoon at Kerewin’s unconventional Tower-home on the beach and Joe must come to fetch him the next morning. The challenges to this friendship are immense. Both Joe and Kerewin are lonely, heartbroken individuals who drink enough alcohol to euthanize a small army and are more than willing to share it with Simon. Joe, while a loving father on the one hand, beats Simon to within an inch of his life every time the boy screws up by either stealing, cutting school or fighting. Kerewin, for her part, refuses to be touched, shunning all human contact and adopting a strict code of self-reliance. Despite Joe and Kerewin’s tragic pasts, only Simon’s difficult character traits seem to be really earned or understandable. He struggles with horrific memories, mostly suppressed we are led to believe, but that manifest in appalling nightmares. He is insecure and proud, tightly wound and often afraid.Simon’s mysterious shipwreck and unknown past wants to be the central story in the novel and it grows in significance from time to time when Kerewin attempts to investigate certain information or examine some of the boy’s psychological behaviors. But this story ultimately loses importance as the reader gets more involved in following Kerewin’s role in helping Joe deal with his abusive temper. Hulme would like the reader to find enough sympathy for Joe to support him through to the end of the book and its supposedly optimistic resolution but after all that happens this is asking quite a lot. So is asking us to believe in Simon’s unwavering devotion to a man that manages to knock out his teeth, create welts and ulcers on his back that refuse to heal and who eventually deafens him and most likely causes brain damage. No amount of poetic interior revelation can soften the blows of Joe’s monstrous behavior. Nor can it forgive Kerewin’s outright complicity with the final, nearly fatal beating.
Hulme takes both successful and unsuccessful risks with her prose. This is not a conventionally written novel but that is also not a reason to forgive many of the characters’ failings. Although there is a significant amount of elegant and lovely writing in The Bone People, the overall project didn’t seem coherent enough to save the difficult traps of the story.