An outlier brooks no terse introduction. Nevertheless, give me five hundred words to try. Meet Keri Hulme’s novel, The Bone People, Booker Prize winner for 1985.
New Zealand, nineteen eighties, a cruel, vibrant, love story between three unrelated people: a woman, a child, and a man; a mystery infused with Maori myths, soaked with Maori language, suspended between poetry and prose, written unconventionally but with effusive, effortless erudition.
The emotional ride — having recently finished the book — I would describe as explosive disbelief, followed by heartwarming realisation that not all conventional wisdom is sound, not all differences are differences, and that there is hope for us human beings, whichever way we are wrought and then brought together. You, no doubt, would express yourself in other words: there is great latitude for interpretation.
The book is unique, in style and in substance.
The following quote illustrates a few unusual aspects of the writing. The typographic features, indentation and spacing, are deliberate. (The quote is given as an image, to ensure that all browsers preserve the typography.)
Two words jump out: seabluegreen and aue. The latter is a Maori exclamation of dismay, or despair; the book is replete with Maori exclamations, expletives, and expressions of tenderness. While reading, I did not refer to the dictionary provided at the end of the book; instead, these words shaped my experience even if I didn’t understand them semantically — I understood them from context, emotionally.
(Upon writing this post, I checked out a few reviews of Hulme’s book by fellow bloggers, and not everyone shared my viewpoint regarding the Maori words. Usually I am stubbornly word-pedantic, reading with the intention of penetrating even the more obscure nuances of a word; however, some books cannot be read like that, some books are read with the heart rather than the mind, and this is one of them.)
Speaking of how shapes of words shape our experiences, what do you make of seabluegreen? How about limeleaf green and stonegreyblue? Here is what Keri Hulme has to say about this in the Preface.
I like diversity.
The editor should have ensured a uniformity? Well, I was lucky with my editors, who respected how I feel about … oddities. For instance, I think the shape of words brings a response from the reader — a tiny, subconscious, unacknowledged but definite response. “OK” studs a sentence. “Okay” is a more mellow flowing word when read silently. “Bluegreen” is a meld, conveying a colour neither blue nor green but both: “blue-green” is a two-colour mix. Maybe the editors were too gentle with my experiments and eccentricities. Great! The voice of the writer won through.
I thought I was typographically aware and open-minded before — oh, how little I knew!
Eccentric, that’s the word for it, really. The female protagonist, Kerewin Holmes, is eccentric to the core, and just her character would have been enough to support any novel, let alone in addition to the cruel mystery, the love story, and the two other main characters, who bring depth of their own.
STYLISTIC SPOILER WARNING: Beneath the picture of the seabluegreen ocean follows a brief discussion of Keri Hulme’s narrative style. Knowing ahead of time what to expect may affect your experience upon a first reading of the novel. If you have read the book, do not wish to ever read the book (never say not ever?), or you are unconvinced (and would like some convincing regardless of potential regret):
From a cold, practical standpoint, any literature enthusiast or aspiring author should read the book, and here’s why.
The majority is written in third person, present tense. Those are the once indented, dense paragraphs in the Quote. Every few lines, however, there is a doubly indented line, or paragraph, separated by line breaks, which is in first person; I call such writing in this novel thought speech. The example of thought speech in the Quote is: Not restraining violence, pressing meaning.
Moreover, whose third person narrative and whose thought speech we are hearing changes without warning, other than the paragraphing. The reader is left to work out from the context, who is speaking.
Does it jar?
No, once you realise what is going on.
This is a small miracle worth studying, and stowing away in an authorial arsenal for future reference. Even if you only chip off lessons from the edges of her extreme application, there is much to learn.
The writing is “loose” in many ways: fragments, exclamations, melded words, and onomatopoeia abound; the language is quaint in places, quirky in others; there’s poetry and mysticism and charm, there’s italicised writing, there’s the parenthetical. But it all fits and coheres. The world would have been a poorer place had the editors been stricter.
My world would have been a poorer place had I not read it.
- The Bone People, Keri Hulme. Because it’s a journey.
7 thoughts on “Seabluegreen Eyes”
I’ve not read this – and it’s now definitely gone on the list of books to read. But your description of the writing style reminded me of “The Reprieve” by Sartre. [As in your article: stop at this point if you don’t want any stylistic spoliers.]
“The Reprieve” is the second volume of Sartre’s “The Roads to Freedom” trilogy, so we already know several of the characters from the first volume. The narration shifts abruptly between third person and first person; moreover the third person viewpoint jumps around from character to character even within the same paragraph. The ultimate effect of all this is to give the reader an intense sense of immediacy: there are lots of things going on at the same time and you feel right in the middle of them. The initial effect, however, is complete confusion. Everyone I know who has read the novel (quite a small sample) has had a similar reading approach to mine: start reading, get very confused, finally work out what’s going on (round about page 50), start again from the beginning; enjoy book.
If you’ve not read this I think you might want to give it a go. (Though the subject matter has some unpleasant elements…)
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Of course, I didn’t stop at the stylistic spoiler alert! I researched your suggestion, and am tempted by it. It might take me a while to reach the second book (as I suppose, I ought to first read the first, and as I suppose, it will not be a “quick read”, so to speak). But it’s on my list now, and I’m looking forward to it.
I have read very few books with abrupt POV shifts, and indeed, I have read many writing books which advise against such “nonsense” unless you’re extremely cautious and extremely skilful. Caution to the wind, and skill to Sartre, I suspect.
Great review! Had never heard of this book. I am a bit out of the loop, though 🙂 Can’t wait to read it!! Thank you.
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Glad you enjoyed it! When you get a chance to read the book, feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you thought 🙂 I’m curious to discuss it, as I’m sure we’ll disagree on certain points, but in a good way I hope.
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I have thought about reading this book, and been worried it would affect me too much. I still think it might, but I’m going to read it anyway now. You have changed my mind because now I am intrigued by the Maori words (will I need to look them up or work them out as I go along) and by the change of voice (I think I’d understand whose voice but we will see). And melding – which I like a lot.
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I found it intriguing, certainly, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
(The book will challenge conventional notions of love and pull on every single heartstring if you let it — it’s good to be aware of this beforehand, as you are.)