The Bone People

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Some books pass through the landscape of your mind like clouds snagged on the branches of hillside trees.

Some books swirl around in the mind’s memory.

Some books haunt you, demanding to be picked up and read, and over the last few weeks I have been haunted by The Bone People by Keri Hulme.

First published in 1985, it was the Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies of its time, causing controversy with its erratic punctuation and strange use of words. But how can ‘seabluegreen eyes’ be anything other than right and perfect to describe what she wanted us to see? The flashing opal eyes of a strange boy.

And the cover. Robert Mason. I loved his work when I was at college, him, Ann Howeson, Sue Coe, Alan Alder, Liz Pyle. In these days art editors had more sway than the marketing department and there were editors at Pan, Picador, Virago and Penguin who made the covers sing. I wish I could remember their names.

So big in its day, I wonder, do people read it now?

The copy I have now is not the original from 27 years ago. For some reason this book has wanderlust. Loaned out but never returned. But usually at some point there has been a copy waiting quietly on my shelves. Until a few weeks ago when it started haunting me.

I remember:

A tower by the sea, beautiful.


A strange child.

Three people.

A haunting violence.

Nothing more.

In the preface to the first edition Keri Hulme talks of how communication with her editors was difficult.

” I live 500 miles away, don’t have a telephone, and receive only intermittent mail delivery- so consensus on small point of punctuation never was reached. I like the diversity.”

So did I . Her words came to my heart and mind in the way that The Clash had come to my ears as I grew away from home and into my own skin. I loved it.

Now, one of the benefits of age, forgetting. I cannot remember the story. So now I am reading again, revisiting the tower by the sea that I longed for when first I read it. A tower by the sea to work and paint in, with a library. Rock pools to walk by to watch away the dust of living. I thought to just take a look before moving on to something else. An hour later I am lost to a land on the other side of the world.

And I have to climb the stairs to paint in my house by the sea and later wander the beach and look in the rock pools and wonder how it is that books can shape our lives so much.

About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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10 Responses to The Bone People

  1. Marianne says:

    Ah. One of my favourite books but not an easy one. I reread it every couple of years and each time it is different, as I am different.
    Have you read its prequel, A Drift in Dream, just a dozen pages in the short story collection Te Kaihau/The Windeater?

  2. Stuart Hill says:

    I read this in the eighties too. I’d almost completed my university course and was wondering what to do next with my life. Before that I’d spent six years working in a small car factory where mice nested in the tea cups and sugar bags. Getting out of that environment and into university had been my main ambition, and I’d achieved it. But I had no idea what to do next, and reading ‘The Bone People’ offered a respite from my worries. I knew what I wanted to do of course, and a quarter of a century, and three published novels later, I still know what I want to do! The young man who read The Bone People has inevitably got older, but I’m pleased to say he still has ambitions!

  3. Jackie, I discovered your beautiful work while looking into watercolour illustration online with a desire to draw/paint a wolf ..I Ordered a copy of the Ice Bear from the Solva Mill and it arrived today ( a few postcards as well as I want to pass your work on to friends ) I am thrilled by your style and the beauty of colour and line and the poetry within your work . I really started late in life to draw paint and doodle ( fifty something )to explore my tiny ability and to learn to use colour in the form of water colours ( which I love) I was Ok-ish at Art at school but was lacking in confidence ( A LOT ) so self talked myself out of really exploring it. I look at your work and other works by other great illustrators from the Golden age like Rakham , Dulac , and my all time favourite Kay Neilson for inspiration and beauty . While I will not reach that calibre , I can have some joy attempting, its not too late ..I hope . This post ( and this comment is long sorry ) is so syncronsitic . I read the book while living in London and preparing to go to NZ to live . I loved it, yes its a deep read the best books are I think- and like you for the same haunting reasons, its called me back . I loved the tower and the sea imagery. I came back to Alba from NZ years later. I now live by the water. A few days ago the book came to mind again as a re winter read . And the reason I love children’s books and illustrations so much, apart from story and the art is my occupation for many years was in childcare as a nanny and nursery nurse . ( and books are so so SO important ) And at one point I was a temporary nanny to look after the children of a member of the Clash . :)

    • Jackie says:

      And the next coincidence is that my next book out is East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which was also illustrated by Kay Nielsen. Thank you for this, and hi. Not getting enough time to read. Off out for a moment now to blow away the moths. But thank you so much for getting in touch. I am still loving The Bone People.

  4. bridgetjane says:

    I have long loved your blog – I worked with Keri on Playschool (the New Zealand/BBC co- production) as a graphic designer well before she produced this stunning, disturbing and haunting book. Keri was an amazing director and very much her own person. I love that you are all reading this story again
    PS in the New Zealand version of Playschool badgers, voles etc were replaced with kiwis, tuataras etc

    • Jackie says:

      wow. I didn’t know she did that. Didn’t know much about her other than that she wrote this stunning book. And now I wonder why I never looked for more of her work. In its time I know this book reached out to many people. I wonder how many people still read it, how many stumble on it for the first time and discover it. Still loving rereading and now I read in such a different way as i look at not just the story, but also the way it is written. And i am older, so things speak to me in a different way.

  5. Mo Crow says:

    I have seen this book on the shelves in the library for nearly 30 years and it has called to me lots of times but I have never picked it up after reading your post I placed a reserve (it’s due back to our local library in the middle of the month) thank you for the recommendation!

  6. Shira says:

    I have that exact version of it. Can’t remember when I read it first, I think in the 90s? Possibly when I lived in Ireland. No I just checked, it say 2000, so I must have got it when I was living in NZ. There are books I reread because I have nothing better to do, and there are books that ask for a special time ro be reread. This one’s of the latter.

  7. alison says:

    I have read and re-read The Bone People a number of times, not sure how I ended up finding it the first time, possibly just saw the cover and picked it up in a used book store. There is always something new each time I read it, as I am not the same person as years ago. I adore her use of language, so very resonant and evocative. While the story itself has very difficult parts, the underlying meta-truths are positive, which is why I keep coming back to it…

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