Worlds of Wonder

The Bone People

by Keri Hulme
Louisiana State University Press, 450 pp., $17.95

What’s Bred in the Bone

by Robertson Davies
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 436 pp., $17.95

In The Bone People, winner of the 1985 Booker Prize in Britain as well as the Pegasus Prize in America, nature will fight back valiantly, but the opening pages are all artifice, dispiritingly so. The stoutest reader must quail when he reads in the preface that the short story which the novel began as (and really ought to have stayed) was typed on the author’s first typewriter, a present from her mother. The novel was turned down by three publishers on the grounds that it was unsuitably large and unwieldy and “too different,” but then “Enter, to sound of trumpets and cowrieshell rattles, the Spiral Collective.” Since the author lived five hundred miles away in a different part of New Zealand and didn’t have a telephone, the Collective’s editors weren’t able to insist overmuch: “Great! The voice of the writer won through.” Did Dickens and Hawthorne carry on like this? Or Emily Brontë and George Eliot?

There are good things in the novel, even some original things, which I shall note later. Unfortunately they will be spotted only by readers of enormous patience and long-suffering, or possibly by those who, unaware of the ancient modes of modernism, are fired by the conviction that Keri Hulme has invented a brandnew style for herself. Swift remarked long ago that something can pass as wondrous deep for no better reason than that it is wondrous dark.

The narrative is chiefly mediated, directly or indirectly, through the central character, Kerewin Holmes, a one-eighth Maori woman very much of our time in being or seeking to be self-sufficient: a loner, a painter, a guitar player, wised-up in the fashionable naivetés, aikido, the Diamond Sutra, the Sufis, mandalas, the I Ching. Scraps of undistinguished verse, identified only by the layout, alternate with scraps of Maori, direct speech with meandering rivulets of consciousness.

She stares at the screaming painting.
The candlelight wavers.
The painting screams silently on.
She hates it.
It is intensely bitter.

O unjoy, is that all I can do? Show forth my misery?

The portentous alternates with the Joycean coinage (“She is immune to the eyesting of onionjuice”), the oddly ejaculatory (“Sweet apricocks and vilest excreta”), and the whimsically colloquial (“Me image hath gone down the drain”).

Aue and ach y fi, the cold and my chilblains. And that bloody little bugger upstairs. All miseries hemming me in together.

No wonder that Simon, the little bugger upstairs, asks himself, “What does she talk like that for? To fool me?”

Simon, or Haimona, is the easiest character to get along with. He is mute: a weird silver-blond boy of six or seven, either distinctly backward or precociously forward, orphaned in a shipwreck and adopted, though not legally, by a half-Maori called Joe Gillayley. We begin to warm to Kerewin when, meeting Joe for the first time, she says she had expected something big and blond and “dumb and boisterous to boot,” then remembers that Simon is present and rushes to explain …

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