The 1985 Booker Prize Winner was a controversial choice. 21 years later it remains so, igniting fiery passions on internet book boards simply by mentioning the title. Is this due to the emotive nature of the content or because the writing is not up-to-scratch?
First things first – I love the ethnicity of the 1986 paperback edition cover as well as the fact that all the images are reminders of storylines, symbols and motifs used throughout the novel – a fabulous summary of the content of this incredibly complex novel.
The composite triangle containing the tricephalous image emphasises the book’s trinity of main characters: Joe, the father; Simon, the son; Kerewin, the unholy yet reconciling force. Each of these characters has major flaws. Joe is a brute. True, he loves his son but anyone who almost batters his son to death (whatever the provocation), is a bully and a brute. Simon is a foundling child adopted by Joe. He is mute and incredibly disturbed, displaying aberrant behaviour, which cannot wholely be attributed to the physical abuse he suffers. Kerewin is also damaged goods. We are never told why but at the beginning of the book she is living in isolation, separated from her family in a purpose-built tower – a home she refers to as prison. Into her retreat stumbles an injured Simon, heralding a new, though not untroubled phase, in the lives of all three characters.
While the characters may not be likeable, Hulme’s psychological portrayal of all three is amazingly astute. Simon, while an absolute nightmare, displays the symptoms of battered spouse syndrome. Behave badly, be abused and trigger the comfort of a loving reconciliation. Kerewin is a master class in characterisation. Brittle, prickly, amazonian yet with a soft centre – she is drawn slowly but surely, against her will, into the maelstrom of Joe and Simon’s relationship. I found the interaction of these three absolutely fascinating.
Hulme’s narrative is interspersed with short streams of consciousness, which enable the reader to really get inside the skin of the three characters. (Thus it is impossible to condemn Joe even though our moral judgement may scream at us to do so.) The text is also rich in symbol and metaphor. Not that I understand them all for I’m pretty sure that, like the language used, some of these metaphors have Maori origins. Spirals figure throughout. (Perhaps New Zealanders reading this could elucidate on their meaning.)
The main metaphor, though, has to be that of the three central characters. Joe is Maori, Simon is European while Kerewin, the reconciling force, is of mixed extraction (though only 8% Maori). Joe is happily married with Maori wife and child. He loses both to flu after adopting Simon. The implication is obvious. Simon, the European, brings trouble and destruction to the indigenous population, who reacts with rage and brutality. Kerewin, the troubled mixed breed, effects reconciliation between the two. There’s a message here. Is it that the past is done? It’s unchangeable. Move on. We must live better, even if we can’t live perfectly.
I loved all of this depth yet the novel is not perfect. A couple of issues come immediately to mind. 1) The brutality is extreme. Too raw. Offputting. 2) Kerewin and Joe, while psychologically injured at the beginning of the novel, are damaged further by events. Before they can reconcile, they must heal. Yet, given all the stomach-churning realism, this healing is effected by Maori mystics. It’s almost but not quite deus ex machina. Quite simply I don’t buy it.
There are other things that don’t add up either. What’s the matter with Joe’s family? Why, given the extent of his abuse of Simon, don’t they report him? How can Kerewin get so close to Joe and Simon without realising that the child is covered head to toe in scars? How can Joe afford to spend so much time in the pub? Why do the adults spend so much time in the pub? Why does Hulme depict such a negative portrayal of New Zealand life? Why does Keri name her heroine Kerewin? Why? Why? Why?
I’ll be thinking of it for a while yet. So, despite its flaws, this novel is powerful, amazing and ultimately unforgettable. Read it!