100 Novels, The Bone People, The End

Finished The Bone People tonight. It’s a novel that turns dark very quickly. The last 100 or so pages get narrated by Joe, Simon and Kerewin. For the most part, the novel is in Kerewin’s voice. When Joe narrates (or rather when the story turns its focus on him) he’s released from prison after a sentence for severely beating Simon almost to death. As repentance he wanders into the wilderness and attempts suicide, only to be saved by a Maori healer. Simon recovers in a hospital then gets sent into foster care, from which he runs away–to where Kerewin’s tower is, or was rather. Kerewin runs away too. A doctor discovers that she may or may not have a cancerous tumor in her stomach. Refusing treatment, she wanders off to die. This was a particularly painful chunk of reading, not so much because I cared all that much for Kerewin as a character, but could deeply sympathize with the pain described, as it made me think of my father, and what pain he must’ve gone through as he lay dying from leukemia. At the same time I wanted to shout angrily at Kerewin because she’s essentially trying to commit suicide. (She blames herself for causing Simon to get savagely beaten by Joe.) Giving up in such a cowardly way–again I thought of my father; he was dying, but he fought the evil shit that was eating him alive.

Kerewin’s character from the best I could figure out was in her early to late thirties, maybe forties, and her actions seemed way too dramatic of a reaction to the circumstances that led to them. Joe’s attempt was perhaps somewhat more believable. Simon’s recovery was OK, although the doctor who encourages him to escape foster care until he can be reunited with either Joe, Kerewin or Joe’s family was a bit too much; but, Simon seems almost a bit too unnatural as a child, at once weirdly innocent and sensitive and impish and destructive.

Oddly enough Hulme tacks on an epilogue in which all the characters reunite in a sort of made-for-TV movie way; it’s the sentimental sort of thing as a reader you want to see happen, and yet, it seems contrived.

Hulme stylistically tries to be too modernist, too Joycean. As I read the novel, with its weird line breaks and quick shifts in point of view, I kept thinking if she hadn’t so consciously tried to make the novel experimental, and had used a more conventional straightforward narrative technique, the novel itself would’ve been stronger. She has an interesting idea with the three main characters and plays on a theme of love and redemption, and oddly enough, despite all of her attempts at modernist experimentation, she provides you with a fairly conventional tale.

I was also a bit disappointed with the way she handled Simon. Throughout the novel she builds up Simon as a mystery figure, with mythological potential, only to end it with Simon being strange (perhaps suffering from untreated post traumatic stress disorder), but a fairly ordinary child. I kept expecting a Gabriel Marquez leap into magical realism.

Anyhow, it’s an OK novel, conventional despite its experimental use of language and point of view.

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100 Novels, or Here I Go a-Spiraling

The image of a spiral staircase keeps recurring in my reading, in particular as a metaphor for spiritual journey. Last month, I read The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, which literally uses the image as a metaphor for her spiritual journey.

Currently, of course, I’m reading The Bone People by Keri Hulme, in which the protagonist Kerewin Holmes lives in a tower with a spiral staircase.

Armstrong found her inspiration in T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” in which Eliot’s speaker climbs a metaphorical spiral staircase, and faces things he doesn’t necessarily want to face at each bend of the spiritual road. Neither did Armstrong for that matter.

Eliot makes the image concrete here: “At the first turning of the second stair/ I turned and saw below/ the same shape twisted on the banister/ Under the vapour in the fetid air/ Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears/ The deceitful face of hope and despair.”

I wonder if Hulme was inspired by Eliot’s poem. Climbing the spiral staircase in Kerewin’s tower is a consistent image in The Bone People, and catches Kerewin in moments of hope and despair. It seems to hide a symbolic mystery–besides the staircase, spirals appear elsewhere, even on her cups and glasses, in nature–and that mystery seems to be acted out with the co-antagonists (or what passes for antagonists; though Kerewin battles herself as well) Joe and Simon Gillayley. The child Simon is being played up as a big mystery, and as I’m approaching the climax of the novel, as the action seems to be receding, I keep expecting that mystery to reveal itself.

A Bit on The Bone People, Novel 2

Though I’m about halfway through the second novel of my 100 novel reading attempt, I don’t have much to say about The Bone People. It’s an OK book, but seems a period piece; it fits to the time it was published. The protagonist, Kerewin Holmes, is sort of a proto-feminist character, a bit of a parody, a woman playing the tough-guy Hemingway role: hard drinking, fishing, fighting, smoking–although no sex yet. In the section I read this morning, she took down a male character (Joe Gillayley, the closest thing to an antagonist) with aikido, in a few swoops, and with much braggadacio later.Was this really what feminists sought in the late ’70s early ’80s? a parody of an already parodied figure. I can’t imagine the character of Kerewin holding up to many feminist standards today. Or am I completely out of the loop since I last took any women’s studies classes almost a dozen years ago?