Violent, disturbing, poetic, striking: The Bone People by Keri Hulme is one of the most divisive novels in Booker Prize history.
Joanna Lumley, one of the judges the year it won, found the book ‘indefensible’. Decades later, Booker winner Bernadine Evaristo declared it ‘one of my all-time favourite books’.
In the aftermath of Hulme’s death in late December 2021, Sarah Shaffi looks back at the outsider who broke through the British establishment, and who forged a new literary lineage from Maori mythology and European tradition.
The Bone People, said Norman St John Stevas in his speech as chair of the Booker Prize judges in 1985, ‘is a highly poetic book filled with striking imagery and insights… It seems to be about child battering, but is really about love. Is it all too disturbing or is it a winner?’
Telling the stories of artist in exile Kerewin, a speechless boy named Simon, and his foster father Joe, The Bone People is a story of love and violence that reckons with the clash between Māori and European cultures.
The Booker Prize jury answered St John Stevas’ question by awarding the 1985 prize to its author Keri Hulme, making her the first New Zealander to win the award. Yet it remained ‘all too disturbing’ for many, including some of that year’s other judges.
The Bone People sat alongside Illywhacker by Peter Carey, The Battle of Pollocks Crossing by J.L. Carr, The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing, Lost Letters from Hav by Jan Morris and The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch on the 1985 shortlist.
While judges Marina Warner and JW Lambert, along with St John Stevas, supported The Bone People, Nina Bawden opposed the book because of its violence, as did Joanna Lumley, whose first choice was The Good Terrorist.
‘This is over-my-dead-body stuff for me,’ wrote Lumley of The Bone People in a letter to her fellow Booker Prize judges. The actor, on tour and unable to attend the judging meeting, sent her thoughts on each of the shortlisted books in a handwritten letter, composed from a dressing room in the Theatre Royal Brighton. The letter continued: ‘I can’t bring myself to approve any of it; its poetry (to me) is whining, and its subject matter finally indefensible.
‘We can’t have a book on childbattering, no matter how lyrically observed, carrying off the gold.’
Warner remembers the judging panel’s split over the book, but that she was ‘very, very struck’ by the book as soon as St John Stevas recommended it. She says she thought The Bone People ‘a really extraordinary achievement, a very, very unusual piece of writing, the writing on every page springs surprises. Some people didn’t like that, but I thought that it showed a kind of energy.’
It was not just the violence of the novel that stood out and puzzled people, but also its very Māori nature. A profile of Hulme in Vogue after the Booker Prize win, written by Antonia Williams, said the book was turned down by five New Zealand publishers, ‘all of whom, in their own, very European ways, wished to wrest its circling, Polynesian construction, its oddity, into something more linear and conventionally publishable’.
The writer C K Stead, a white New Zealander, wrote a long critique of the novel in a letter published in the London Review of Books in December 1985. He focussed on both its dark content and its authenticity.
‘Of Keri Hulme’s eight great-grandparents one only was Maori,’ Stead wrote. ‘Hulme was not brought up speaking Maori, though like many Pakeha New Zealanders she has acquired some in adult life. She claims to identify with the Maori part of her inheritance – not a disadvantageous identification at the present time: but it seems to me that some essential Maori elements in her novel are unconvincing.’
Although he said he was ‘glad The Bone People has been written and published’, he concluded: ‘When I stand back from it and reflect there is, in addition to the sense of its power, a bitter aftertaste, something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric, which no amount of revision or editing could have eliminated, and which, for me at least, qualifies the feeling that the publication of this book is an occasion for celebration.’
A slightly longer version of Stead’s piece appeared in Ariel (A Review of International English Literature) in October 1985, after Hulme won the Pegasus Award for Māori Literature. Referring to Stead, Paula Morris, a Māori writer, associate professor at the University of Auckland, and the founder of the Academy of NZ Literature – of which Hulme was a Fellow – says now that ‘one Pākehā [white] academic (and fellow novelist) accused the book, and its author, of not being “authentic” as Māori. This was controversial criticism, even then, and suggested one of the additional obstacles a Māori writer like Hulme had to face: questioned about her heritage, use of te reo Māori (the Māori language) and mythology, and choice of a European form (the novel).’
[The Booker] was claimed not by the winning author – away lecturing in America – but on her behalf by a posse of keening harpies said to be members of the feminist collective which had helped with her book— Philip Purser, Daily Telegraph
In 1985, when The Bone People won the Booker Prize, UK publishing was a very white, very middle-class enterprise (this descriptor isn’t too far off describing publishing today, although things have improved some). Hulme’s book was published by a feminist collective called Spiral, and since Hulme was teaching in Salt Lake City on the night of the award ceremony, three women from Spiral – Irihapeti Ramsden, Marian Evans and Miriama Evans – accepted the award on her behalf. Ramsden and Miriama Evans walked up to the podium wearing Maori korowai, arm in arm with Marian Evans in a tuxedo, and chanted a Maori karanga as they went. Marian Evans of Spiral recalled the evening in a piece originally written for her blog and since published on Medium, writing that it was a ‘strange night’.
‘No-one knew what to make of Miriama’s and Irihapeti’s karanga (we were described as “keening harpies” later, in one newspaper),’ she wrote. ‘We wanted to talk about the generosity and love that had brought the bone people and us to the Booker ceremony, but we were not permitted to speak (probably a time thing: it was televised and Keri was on the line to speak, from the States).’
That ‘keening harpies’ quote came from an article in the Sunday Telegraph titled ‘Booker and the wimmin’. Philip Purser wrote: ‘[The Booker] was claimed not by the winning author – away lecturing in America – but on her behalf by a posse of keening harpies said to be members of the feminist collective which had helped with her book.’
Warner says that an attitude of anti-feminism shouldn’t be discounted when thinking about the reception to the novel. ‘I think I would almost say that anti-feminism eclipsed, certainly conscious xenophobia [in criticism of the book].’
‘I don’t think many people would have said they were ‘keening harpies’ because they were Maori, they were keening harpies because they were deplorable feminists, they were the monstrous regiment,’ says Warner.
Other publications weren’t as harsh as the Sunday Telegraph, but there was still surprise and, sometimes, an air of condescension towards Hulme’s subject matter, as when the Daily Telegraph wrote that the Booker Prize was awarded to ‘Ms Hulme’s saga about a shipwrecked boy, his child-battering stepfather, and a virgin feminist’.
Hulme and The Bone People had a long journey to publication. In Kai Purakau, a documentary about Hulme made by New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston in 1987, Hulme says that when asked what she wanted to be when she was older, she would say artist. ‘I very quickly learned that this evoked disbelief and a kind of covert disapproval, so I learnt to tack on very quickly “and a nurse” and eventually to tack on “or a nurse” and this was greeted with coos and acceptance,’ says Hulme in the film.
‘So I did things like picked tobacco and picked raspberries and worked in a woollen mill to fill in the time, and then bowed to pressure from family and others and went to Canterbury University and was a law student for four terms. I dropped out and became a very good fish and chip cook to get money, so I’d have time to do what I really wanted to do, which was write and paint and walk beaches and dream.’
It seems that Hulme did what she really wanted to do. She was able to indulge in her hobby of whitebait fishing, and is filmed in Kai Purakau walking the beaches and in her study, where she is surrounded by piles of books. Preston recalls that Hulme was ‘accessible’ during the making of the documentary, but also firm about her boundaries: ‘When we were shooting, Keri said, “Don’t come before one. Do not come near me before one. I’m writing at night and I will be sleeping.” And it was really clear.’
Hulme was not one to beat around the bush when directness would do. Speaking in the film about receiving letters from readers, she is kind about those who write to her about their own experiences. But she’s wonderfully blunt – in a way that would be frowned upon today, not just because of the language she uses but also because of the etiquette governing how writers should talk about readers. ‘Some of it’s completely potty, you know,’ she says of her correspondence, ‘you get letters from nuts. That’s also interesting in its own way. I’m always very polite to the nuts.’ (Her frankness was also displayed when she received the call, broadcast live on New Zealand television, to tell her she’d won the Booker Prize. ‘You’re not pulling my leg, are you? Bloody hell,’ she said.)
I lay in bed making my way through the loose pages as fast as I could, dropping each one over the side of the bed after I read it— Marian Evans, publisher of The Bone People
On the surface, Hulme’s life has a filter of romanticism and legend about it. She was often described as a pipe-smoker (indeed, it’s a phrased used in many a headline about her death), and she’s seen in Kai Purakau walking on beaches, as she desired. But the truth was it was a humble life, perhaps humbler than expected of a writer two years on from winning the biggest literary prize in the world.
‘The thing about Keri, that I wanted to reflect in the documentary, is that she lived very humbly in a part of the country that was easy to live in if you didn’t have very much money,’ says Preston.
‘It’s a beautiful part of New Zealand that has never been particularly well resourced. So it is a place where artists can be found. Keri had built her own house, which I think is extraordinary really. She built the house so that she could afford to have a house. It sounds picturesque, but actually it’s a lot of work to build a house.
‘The house didn’t leak and the outside walls were all bookcase. So she used her substantial collection of books in built-in book cases and called them insulation.’
Hulme took 12 years to write The Bone People, and showed it to Marian Evans in 1981. Recalling reading the book for the first time, Evans wrote: ‘I was working in a women’s refuge at the time…and very tired, but once I started reading I couldn’t stop: I lay in bed making my way through the loose pages as fast as I could, dropping each one over the side of the bed after I read it.’
Evans says the book engaged her ‘so strongly because of its violence: it spoke to me about behaviour that was then part of my day-and-night working life’.
Evans hoped another publisher would take the book, ‘because it was so long, and therefore expensive to produce’. But after a number of publishers turned it down – including a feminist publisher who rejected it for not being feminist enough, and two more who wanted Hulme to edit it – it was Spiral that ended up publishing it on February 18, 1984.
Is it all too disturbing or is it a winner?
In Hulme’s native New Zealand, The Bone People was ‘a sensation’, says Morris; the book won the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for fiction.
‘Its impact in New Zealand was profound at the time because it was seen as both a Māori and a feminist novel, both still relatively rare in the 1980s,’ says Morris. ‘It’s easy to forget now that The Bone People was a landmark publication in New Zealand. Hulme remains one of only four Māori women writers to win our big national prize for fiction. She was the first, and had the largest international impact because of the UK publication and the Booker Prize.’
Morris says the novel still has a place in the New Zealand canon. ‘For Māori writers then and now, Hulme’s win was a transformative moment – when a Māori book that was impressionistic, complex and often visceral in its brutality, rather than ‘explaining’ te ao Māori (the Māori world) to readers at home and overseas, was recognised as a great work of art.’
‘The Bone People may still be the only New Zealand novel someone outside the country has read. But New Zealand was Hulme’s home, her tūrangawaewae (place to stand), and the place from which and about which she wrote. The status of The Bone People has never diminished in the Māori canon; it will always be regarded as an important book, influential, a classic. It demonstrated that there was a potentially large and diverse audience in New Zealand for unapologetically Māori stories written with no concessions to a non-Māori audience, and the possibility of international success as well.’
Preston agrees: ‘You could say that The Bone People secured a local genre of writing, which is Māori female fantasist writing, that extends right to now.’
For Māori writers then and now, Hulme's win was a transformative moment— Paula Morris, Maori writer and professor
Among the book’s long-term fans is the author Bernardine Evaristo, who jointly won the Booker Prize in 2019 for her novel Girl, Woman, Other (and, like Hulme, is a winner who was a ‘first’ for the prize). She cited The Bone People as one of the books that inspired her to find her own voice. She has previously called Hulme ‘an early inspiration’, and described The Bone People as ‘strange, original, unforgettable’.
In a tweet after Hulme’s death, Evaristo wrote that The Bone People was ‘one of my all-time favourite books’. She added: ‘Booker-winner 1985 but the critics were dismissive; she didn’t belong to their literary club. It was an outsider story told by an outsider in an outsider way.’
Warner, who revisited the book recently, remains impressed. ‘I thought I might find it artificial or dated, but I didn’t,’ she says of a recent reread. ‘I think it’s still a powerful book. I mean, it could have been edited…but it’s an extremely powerful testament from a very unusual point of view.’
Despite the novel’s popularity over the years, Hulme never published a second novel, although there was one on the horizon.
In 1985, Peter Straus, now managing director of Rogers, Coleridge and White, had placed a bet on Illywhacker to win the Booker Prize. But when he joined Picador in 1990 as publisher, he got to work on converting a backlist licence for The Bone People to a full term one. And, more excitingly, he saw ‘100 scintillating pages’ of a second novel by Hulme called Bait, and commissioned the book.
‘Every time I would visit New Zealand I would go and meet her and attempt to get delivery of the work,” he recalls. “At literary festivals her mother Mary would be there and I would always ask if the book was ready to read. But sadly they always said it was not ready to be given to me yet.’
Straus worked at Picador for 12 years, but was never able to get that finished manuscript of Bait. ‘She had a full life with many other commitments,’ he says. ’I think delivering the novel was understandably not a priority.’
Every time I would visit New Zealand I would go and meet her and attempt to get delivery of the work— Peter Straus, Keri Hulme's agent
Hulme lived a quiet life, not often granting media interviews, and instead spending time with family and on her passions of writing, painting and whitebaiting.
‘There were stories of her being this literary giant,’ her nephew Matthew Salmons told New Zealand’s Stuff after her death. ‘It wasn’t really something that she discussed. It was never about fame for her, she’s always been a storyteller. It was never about the glitz and glam, she just had stories to share.’
In publishing The Bone People, Hulme shared the story she wanted to, without concern for what the literati might want or expect from her, then or in the future. In that way, her life’s work fits remarks made by St John Stevas on the night of her win: ’May I remind you what this prize is for: it is not for being ‘top of the pops’: it’s not for providing a riveting yarn or an easy read (though the winner may provide this too): it is for the achievement of making what in the all too fallible opinion judges is a major and serious contribution to contemporary English fiction.’
Archive research: Jo Hamya
Image research: Jo Evans