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Cracking Open the Shell of a Reclusive New Zealand Artist

November 18, 1985|URSULA HEGI

The Bone People by Keri Hulme (Louisiana State University: $17.95; 450 pp.)

New Zealand writer Keri Hulme has written a powerful and courageous first novel. "The Bone People" began as a short story which the author wrote at night after working in tobacco fields, but then it "began to warp into a novel. The characters wouldn't go away. They took 12 years to reach this shape."

After the manuscript was turned down by just about every New Zealand publisher, it was brought out in its original edition by three women who founded Spiral Collective in order to publish Hulme's novel. Since then, "Bone People" has become a success and has won Britain's prestigious Booker-McConnell Award for fiction.

"The Bone People" is set on the South Island beaches of New Zealand, a harsh environment where Kerewin Holmes, a painter, lives in chosen isolation inside a six-floored tower she has built from money won in a lottery. She doesn't trust people and discourages anyone from coming on her land. To protect herself from the past, she lives in the present. But her work is not going well. "Nothing grows under her anxious hands. She feels empty and sour."

The Intruder

One day a child breaks into her house, "a thin shock-headed person, haloed in hair, shrouded in the dying sunlight." His name is Simon. He is mute and battered. Despite his limited ways of communicating, he is able to draw the reclusive painter into his life and that of his foster father, Joe, a passionate man capable of fierce tenderness and blinding cruelty.

When Joe refers to the boy as jetsam, Kerewin ponders, "Jetsam . . . The old meaning was goods thrown overboard to lighten a ship . . . dreams of being left, bereaved. . . ."

The mysteries of their lives unfold gradually as Hulme alternates among the three points of view. The most difficult of them is that of Joe, a Maori factory worker, who abuses his son. Yet, he is not a monster. Hulme has created his character with such sensitivity, that it becomes difficult to judge him and possible to understand him beyond his destructive actions.

Like many battered children, Simon keeps the secret of the abuse. Kerewin follows her intuition in dealing with the boy. When she teaches him to play chess, she is patient, "intent on sharing the pleasure the game gives her."

Keri Hulme, whose ancestry is Maori, Orkney Island and English, writes with great insight about the culture of the Maori (New Zealanders of Polynesian descent), reflecting their battle between destruction and hope. Her characters have integrity, courage and endurance.

Rich With Images

Her writing is at its best when she submerges the reader in the subconscious of the child who doesn't speak. Simon's inner voice is rich with images which Hulme expresses in poetic and moving language. After the boy digs up a nest of mummified baby rabbits, he dreams he's back at the hole. The sun is shining. "So you start feeding them music, underbreath singing, and little by little the withered leathery ears fill out . . . The dead dried fur begins to lift and shift and shine . . . you're inside a moving wave of sound and light and quick joy, and it steadies, stays. . . ."

Keri Hulme is a writer who trusts her voice and accepts her inner reality as valid. The result is a novel that is mysterious and violent, gentle and unsettling, compassionate and honest.

Ursula Hegi is the author of "Intrusions" (Viking) and teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University.

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