The Bone People, by Keri Hulme: Not the Greatest Beach Read, But…

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on August 30, 2010

bone people by keri hulme

The Bone People was selected as the book in my vacation carry-on for a couple of reasons:

The great cover. Sometimes a book can be evaluated by its design, and Penguin Classics is having a heyday with their Penguin Ink series to celebrate their 75th Anniversary. You got me Penguin. You always do.

All those awards. Little ones like the Pegasus Prize, and big ones like the Booker Prize. Those ought to mean something.

The setting. A beach in New Zealand is almost like a beach in North America… right?

Little did I know that The Bone People is an abstract, experimental, heavily themed book with ties to Maori lore and magical realism. Worthy of literary awards? Absolutely. A fun read to flip through while sipping a mai tai? Not in the slightest.

While my beach mates were tittering through the latest by Candace Bushnell and delving into the Stieg Larrson triology, I waded through a 20-page opening of poetic verse, foreshadowing snippets, and creative punctuation. Was I drunk, or is this book really, really hard to read?

But after a while it developed a nice flow and familiar cadence – these are things that award-winning books tend to do. I was caught up in it, gladly (because there is only so many times you can hear that “tonight’s gonna be a good night” song before you need a distraction), and then I began to realize what The Bone People is actually about.

Three characters thrown together by happenstance – no one is particularly happy, yet they begin to find joy in each others company. Start mixing in alcoholism, child abuse, death, estranged families, and stomach cancer, though, and what joy is to be shared turns into a giant melting pot of despair and loneliness. By the time two of the three main characters set off to die, my beach vacation had turned awfully grim. There’s only so much a person can take while crisping to a nice, even tan on the Pacific Coast.

I couldn’t take it. So I put it down and spent the rest of the week looking at the pictures in Spanish-language tabloids.

Upon returning home to the gloom and doom of reality, I was curious as to if I could continue wading through such a depressing and challenging piece of writing. It turns out I could — even though it wasn’t as if as soon as I was off the beach, things turned into sunshine and Harry Potter. I had to force myself to take it slow, to analyze every convoluted passage, to ask myself, wait… is she saying this outloud or in her head (because Hulme does not in any way distinguish). It ended up being a fantastical read – and hark, is that something resembling a happy-ish ending?

So yes, go ahead and succumb to the new and thrilling cover. But you might just want to wait until you’re off the beach and devoid of pina coladas. It’s my only advice.

Another awesome books I wouldn’t recommend as a beach read:

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

Some terrible books I wouldn’t recommend to you ever:

Read the 3 Books I Started But Never Finished.

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