Saturday, April 20, 2013

Old Books 4: The Bone People

I got this book in Cornwall in 1986, for no particular reason, and read it the peculiar haze of being a barkeep at a holiday resort on a bluff near Perranporth. It was an odd and stranded summer, and this is an odd and haunted book.

It is filled with fierceness: fierce humor, fierce love, and fierce violence. It concerns a trio of characters: Kerewin Holmes (an obvious counterpart to the author, Keri Hulme), a woman who won the lottery, and saw her talent for painting and life shrivel into the tower she built with the proceedings; Joseph Gillayley, whose beloved wife and son died, and who is left caring for Simon, who is autistic and prone to violent rage. Joe gives back in kind, savagely beating the boy.

You'd think with a set up like that you'd end up with a gothic abbatoir of a book. But it isn't. Love and violence are not mutually exclusive in this world—indeed, in reading bell hooks' Something About Love many years later, I found I simply couldn't stomach her calm assurance that "where there is violence, there is no love" precisely because the vision of Joe and Simon kept returning.

It's not that they like hurting each other. It's not S&M in family form. But they do enact their rages back and forth around the room. In what some critics say should have been the finale, Simon smashes Kerewin's beloved guitar, and she tells him to go to hell. Joe enraged, beats him senseless. Before losing consciousness, Simon pulls out a long sliver of glass he has saved away, and neatly inserts it into his stepfather's gut. So, yes, I guess it is an abbatoir.

But it isn't the finale. Broken—Kerewin with a cancer, Joe with time in prison and lost relationship with his family, Simon made deaf and permanently injured by the final beating—they each go to the land in one way or another, and are healed. And that's the message Hulme gives to us in the end: that the fires of fierceness that tie us to the land are the same fires of violence that are a part of Maori culture (did I mention that all of this takes place on the South Island of New Zealand, and that Kerewin and Joe are Maori?), and that it's not a matter of putting those flames out, but of turning them on to what needs the flame.

The whole thing makes me question the smug way we liberals often talk about violence as inherently, utterly wrong. It's not that any character in this book is happy about being violent towards anyone else (although Kerewin smugly puts Joe in his place once with advanced aikido moves). But I think Hulme is saying that neither is violence something we can cut out of ourselves. To me, this book is a puzzle. After more than 25 years, I'm still working on it.