Keri Hulme’s masterpiece the bone people became the Auckland Writer’s Festival’s inaugural Great Kiwi Classic last year. The novel took 17 years to write and was rejected by every publisher in Australasia until the feminist collective SPIRAL brought it out in 1984 with a cover illustration by the author. The following year the bone people won the Booker Prize from a shortlist that included work by Peter Carey, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch.
Ref: the bone people, Cover, c1983, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 823 HUL.
Judge Marina Warner said, “Alongside the many gleamingly designed offerings from the major publishing houses, [the bone people] had the distinction of being published by a women's cooperative in New Zealand, who, when the book won the prize against very high odds, came up in full island dress to collect it, chanting a Maori praise song.”
Marian Evans collected the prize on Keri’s behalf along with Irihapeti Ramsden and Miriama Evans. She said, “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)… And it was surprising and weird to hold the leather-bound copy of the bone people they gave us, but wonderful later to pack it into a kete for Keri.”
Ref: the bone people, page 1, c1983, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 823 HUL.
the bone people has since sold 3 million copies. The New York Times book review said: “Set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, bound in Māori myth and entwined with Christian symbols, Miss Hulme’s provocative novel summons power with words, as a conjuror’s spell.”
Ref: Muir and Moodie for the Auckland Weekly News, A New Zealand seascape, 12 October 1905, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19051012-1-2.
The Otago Daily Times reviewer, D. N. Ballantyne, said, “the bone people is a masterpiece. Nothing like it has appeared in New Zealand before… to convey such a vision of life in a story, from Inferno to Paradiso as it were, requires a narrative gift of a high order.”
The book focuses on three characters who form an uneasy triangle: Kerewin, an artist living alone beside the sea; Simon, a mute urchin who suddenly appears in her life; and Joe, the stepfather who eventually claims him.
Ref: Tourist Dept. for the Auckland Weekly News, Ōkārito Bluff, West Coast, South Island, N.Z., 23 August 1906, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19060823-1-1.
Keri Hulme was born in Christchurch in 1947. She told Contemporary Women Poets that her family came “from diverse people: Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe (South Island Māori iwi); Orkney Islanders; Lancashire folk; Faroese and/or Norwegian migrants.”
After leaving school she worked as a tobacco picker in Motueka where, aged 18, she had her first dream about a mute, long-haired, grinning child with strange green eyes - further dreams, notes and drawings gradually formed the basis of the bone people. To support her writing during these years she worked in a fish and chip shop, in Woolworths, and as a postie, journalist, and woollen-mill winder.
Ref: Auckland Weekly News, Harvesting hop and tobacco crops, 13 April 1938, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19380413-57-2.
She has won several other awards for her writing including the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award for the short story Hooks and Feelers (1975); as well as publishing several short story and poetry collections.
Keri Hulme made her last public appearance at the Auckland Writer’s Festival in 2014 - the same year a second New Zealand writer won the Booker Prize – Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries.
If you’d like a closer look at the cover illustration on the cover of the SPIRAL edition come into the central library as there is currently a display featuring it in the Central Auckland Research Centre and Auckland Libraries also have 3 copies of this edition that you can read in the library.
Author: Leanne, Central Auckland Research Centre