Monday, January 11, 2010

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Book CoverIn this mysterious and multifaceted work of fiction, Kerewin Holmes, recluse and failed painter, unexpectedly discovers a young boy hiding in the stone fortress that she calls home. Discovering that the child is mute, Kerewin fosters him for the day hoping to contact his parents and deliver him home safely. When the boy's father comes to collect him, she learns the strange truth of the boy's history. The boy, known as Simon Gillaley, was found washed up on shore and severely wounded next to other mysterious dead bodies after a shipwreck and taken home by a Maori man named Joe. Initially Simon was adopted into Joe's family and raised by him and his wife Hana, but in more recent times both Hana and Joe's infant son took ill and never recovered. Now the two are struggling alone together, painfully coexisting in a brutal dance of savagery and love. As Kerewin begins to develop a relationship with both the Gillaleys, she discovers secrets about Joe and Simon's life that will painfully alter all of their futures, and after one tragic night, things change between the three forever. Forced apart, the three must fend for themselves against grave illness, disillusionment and heartbreak, and must find a way to reunite themselves from the fractures that society has placed against them. Both elegant and brutal, The Bone People is a great literary achievement that was awarded the Booker Prize for fiction.

This review is going to go a little differently than any other I have posted before. A few months back, my very good blogging friend Aarti, from the awesome blog Booklust, invited me to read this book with her and write a joint review. I jumped at the chance to be able to discuss this book with such an articulate reader and blogger. Both of us were a little intimidated by the reports that this was going to be a difficult read and we figured that along with being able to share the book's complexities with each other, we would provide e-mail commentaries to each other for each section of the book. The experience went very well and enabled both of us to heighten our understanding of this difficult yet powerful book. In attempting to put together a review, we decided to each draft three questions that we had formed while reading the book and to share our answers on both of our blogs. Here are the questions that I posed, both to Aarti and myself, for my half of the review. I encourage you to hop on over to Booklust to see Aarti's very thought-provoking questions and our shared answers of the same.

1) What do you think was the underlying message of the book?

Aarti - Oh gosh! I actually started laughing seeing this question because I have no idea! I don't even know what the title means. I think it is doubly difficult to decode the book because I don't think it was as hopeful at the end as it was made out to be. I do think the story is about forgiveness and redemption. All three characters start out very isolated and then come together. Then they draw apart again due to misunderstanding, realize how much they need each other, and come together once more. It is a simple story when put that way, but I suppose all stories can boil down eventually to a few sentences. This book, to me, is really about how much we all come to rely on friends and relationships to enrich our lives and make us better people. And that it's important to not only forgive other people's faults but to forgive your own.

I think it also hits a lot on culture clashes. It was interesting to me the melding of western thought and Maori thought, and how the two worked together and worked against each other. I am not sure if I fully understand the message of that aspect of the book, but it's there! All three characters came from different Maori-European backgrounds but somehow made a family.

Zibilee - In my opinion, I think the book sends a great message about isolation, not only spiritual and physical but cultural as well. What it says to me is that although isolation can sometimes be a preferred state, there is a necessity for inclusion with a group for wholeness to be reached. I think it played out several times in the story, from Joe's loss of his wife, leaving him isolated in the care of Simon, to Simon's isolation from everyone in his muteness, to Kerewin's isolation from the rest of the world around her. In fact, I think that isolation was just one of the many themes running through the story, but I agree with you that the story is also about forgiveness and redemption as well. I think there were several messages in this book and that each reader will see something different in the main message of the story, which is one of the things I think is so great about it. The interpretation of the entire book can be really fluid and there are many things going on at once, and many different ways in which to read this story.

2) Which character stood out to you the most, and why?

Aarti - Simon. He's such a fascinating character. He's this young boy who can't talk but manages to communicate so much with the people around him. He takes such delight in small things, like music and food and family, but he also gets so angry and frustrated at times. There was such a capacity for kindness and empathy in him. So many scenes of him taking on other people's hurt, or showing kindness and laughter, or sharing in music, made me want to cry. He was so well-written and such a force in the novel. I liked the scenes with him far more than any of those without him.

Zibilee - I liked Simon a lot as well and felt a tremendous tenderness for him, but I felt the most affinity for Kerewin. There was a stark juxtaposition in my feelings for her that it intrigued me. On the one hand, she was very different from me and all her instincts and behaviors were so alien, but underneath all the pride and bravado, I felt that I could identify with her personality in some ways. She was hard and careworn but had a motherly instinct that she couldn't deny, and for all her independence, she needed Simon and Joe just as much as they needed her. I fought my feelings for her for a long time because some of the things she said and did were less than admirable, but in the end I thought that she was the glue that held everything together and she was far, far stronger than I ever thought. Her ability to forgive was somewhat less affecting than Simon's was, but I found it miraculous none the less. My answer to this question surprises me because I pretty much hated Kerewin for most of the first half of the book. I hated her mannerisms and coyness and her complete lack of self control. All I can figure is that she ended up growing on me, or I ended up understanding her a lot better than I thought I did. Whatever the case may be, I was really surprised to find I felt this way.

3) It's obvious that this book contained a lot of symbolism. Did you feel that the symbolism in the story was easy to spot and decipher, or was that an element of the story that was more confusing than the other aspects of the story?

Aarti - I am one of those people who don't really see symbolism until it hits her over the head, or unless she's told what to watch for. In this book, I knew to watch for symbolism of the three main characters being the Holy Family of Christianity, so I was able to spot that fairly easily. I am not nearly as familiar with Maori history and imagery as I am with the Holy Family, so if symbolism existed for that, I sadly missed most of it. I think there were a lot of symbols regarding communication, and the different ways people have of communicating and understanding (or misunderstanding) each other. I also feel that some of the side characters in the story were symbols of kindness, forgiveness, etc., but I didn't really focus on those. I think the symbolism is there if you wish to see it, and that it adds a lot of depth to the story. I don't think this is the sort of book you read "for the story," so to speak, but more to understand its underlying message. So, with that, I don't think the symbolism is confusing (since I think it's a main aspect of really "getting" the story), but I also don't think it's easy to find. I'm really, really glad I read and discussed this book with you as we went along because it really helped me to sort out my thoughts and reflect on certain aspects and scenes more than I would have if I didn't have someone to talk about them with. It made it so much easier to pick this book up and read, and I think this is a book that is made for discussing.

Zibilee - I am also not great at finding the hidden symbolism in the things I read, but in this case I felt that there was just so much symbolism running throughout the story that it was hard not to pick up on some of it. I had no clue as to the symbolism of the Holy Family until Aarti pointed it out and then it seemed pretty clear to me! Ah, well, I did find some of the minor symbolism on my own. For example, I found the symbolism of the semi-precious stones that Kerewin collects were imbued in the text with some of the qualities that Kerewin possesses in her character. I also think I found symbolism in the knife that Simon stole from Kerewin. To me it embodied the strength that Kerewin had and that Simon wished to have, which is why he attempted stealing it from her. These are only small things, and I agree with you, Aarti, that there were a lot of symbols of communication, kindness and forgiveness. I wasn't expert at picking everything out of the story, which only means that I might need to read it again with an eye to the symbolism. I wouldn't exactly call all the symbolism confusing, but it was a bit difficult to spot if you didn't know what you were looking for.

I really am glad that I was able to tackle this read with Aarti because there was a depth to the story that I think I would have missed had I not had her to share it with, and there were definitely some things that I had missed in my reading that she was able to point out to me. It was a wonderful experience to be able to share this with her, and by extension, all of you. Thanks so much for reading our thoughts on all this and if you haven't gotten the picture by now, I think this book is a must read for anyone looking for something with intense emotion. It is a story that I don't think you will ever forget.

Don't forget to head on over to Booklust for part two of our joint review!


Sandy Nawrot said...

I love this type of review (I did one like this with C.B. James for BBAW on the book/movie Blindness). It's fun, isn't it? The book sounds so complex, but you both have done a great job of covering it. Great job!

Aarti said...

SO fun and educational to do this with you :-) Can't wait to do it again.

Steph said...

What a fun post (even if the book is anything but lighthearted!)! I have this one and hope to read it soon, but I found your review really helpful because I actually had no idea what to expect. I had heard it was dark, but that's about it. Reading some of your thoughts (and Aarti's) as better prepared me for it, I think... or at least hope!

Melissa said...

I love the format of this review! This book does sound awfully complex and I can see how reading it with another blogger would be helpful.

bermudaonion said...

You two did a great job! There are some books that are so much better after you've discussed them with someone else and this is a great way to do it!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I liked this review format and now plan to add this to my TBR book; thanks - great job ladies.

Suko said...

This does sound like a difficult book to understand but I think you and Aarti did an excellent job discussing it. I, too, like the format of this post and the way the two of you interact.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Joint reviews are fun! I'd like to do more as well :)

Marie Cloutier said...

I love the joint review; I have The Bone People on my tBR shelf and by all accounts it's a fairly difficult book, so I appreciate having both of your insights on it. What a great way to tackle this one!

Anna said...

I really enjoy these buddy reviews. Sounds like this format is perfect for this book.

Diary of an Eccentric

Ana S. said...

As I was telling Aarti, I need to just get over my fear of this book and read it already. I really enjoyed reading your discussion :)

Jules said...

Sounds like a wonderful book great review, and good job at the join review. Both you and Aarti did a fantastic job!

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