The Bone People is another book that was recommended to me as pre-New-Zealand reading, and I spent the past week finding it pretty hard to put down, to the point (well, actually, this isn’t so unusual for me) where I was reading it while walking down the hallway between the elevator and the door to the office at work (prompting a maintenance/construction worker to grin at me and say, “wow, that must be a really good book”). It is a complicated book: poetic and twisty, with language that is sometimes fun/playful, sometimes gorgeous, and a plot that goes from unsettling to dark and then veers into magic in a way that totally works, in some ways, but also is hard to reconcile with what came before. I don’t think I can talk about this book without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know some significant plot details, maybe stop reading now.

The book starts with disorientation, with a section called “The End at the Beginning,” in which the reader doesn’t have much idea what’s going on, but in which there’s this, which Sam Jordison in the Guardian books blog holds up as an example of bad writing, but which I rather like, both for the sentiment it offers and for how it ultimately fits into the story:

They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.
Together, all together, they are the instruments of change. (4)

So, OK, the story. We meet Kerewin, who is a wealthy and isolated artist who finds herself unable to create new work. She lives in a lovely and idiosyncratic tower she’s had built on the coast; her family is part Maori and part European (though she says at one point she feels “all Maori”); she’s estranged from her relatives (76). One day she comes home to find a child in her tower: this is Simon, who’s around seven years old and mute; he’s not Maori, but his foster father, Joe, (mostly) is. Simon, we learn, was the sole survivor of a shipwreck a few years back; Joe and his family took him in, but then Joe’s wife and biological son both died, leaving Joe to raise Simon on his own. Joe drinks rather a lot (as does Kerewin) and regularly beats Simon, who often skips school and has a habit of stealing. Joe and Simon enter Kerewin’s life, breaking her solitude: “I am in limbo,” she thinks to herself at one point earlier in the book, “and in limbo there are no races, no prizes, no changes, no chances”: well, now there is change (34). But then there is a crisis, or a few crises: Joe beats Simon so badly that he ends up in a coma; Kerewin partly blames herself, and oh, she also seems to have stomach cancer, and nearly dies. Simon does end up recovering somewhat, though his hearing has been damaged, and he just wants to reunite with Joe and Kerewin. And here’s where the magic comes in: Joe, after serving his jail sentence, meets a Maori elder who has apparently been waiting for his arrival: the elder guards a sacred stone and Joe is to be its new guardian. Kerewin, in self-imposed exile awaiting death, has an encounter with a strange being, after which she is cured. Kerewin and Simon and Joe are all reunited, and Kerewin is reconciled with her family for good measure. This is the part I have trouble with. If we take care of the spirit of the land, the end of the book seems to be saying, the spirit of the land may take care of us. And also: if we work at building a community, that community can be there for us. Both of which are heartening and hopeful ideas, but at the same time, a story that ends with the reunion of an abused child and the person who abused him (and others who failed to stop the abuse, despite knowing about it) makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, as does the way the book doesn’t really present any better alternatives. Read more allegorically and less literally, with Joe representing Maori culture, Simon representing European culture, and Kerewin representing a mix of them, maybe the ending works better/differently: the three can come together with others to build something that is a mix of all their perspectives and that has a strength that’s tied to the land itself. But that allegorical reading feels like a stretch to me, after the realistic brutality and violence of the earlier sections of the book.

Jo Walton wrote about this book on tor.com back in 2009; I like her post a lot, though she feels differently about the ending.

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