Beginnings in The Bone People

Added by George P.Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

In the following passage, which appears near the beginning of Keri Hulme's Bone People, the reader encounters one of three sections that either open with the phrase "in the beginning" or use it in some other way. This one combines intensely puzzling and intensely emotional events -- puzzling because the reader does not yet have enough information to understand what is happening and emotional because fear and danger are always compelling, since they convince us that something important is happening.

Much later in the book readers figure out that Simon must be the person who thinks this recollection of shipwreck and abandonment, which combines memory and a narrative present. What does this passage have to do with (a) traditional meanings of the shipwreck image and situation? (b) relations of this novel to detective fiction? (c) the image of the Maori spiral? (d) Hulme's conceptions of time and narrative? The passage:

IN THE BEGINNING, it was darkness, and more fear, and a howling wind across the sea.

"Why not leave him?"

They can't whisper any more.

"No guarantee he'll stay on the bottom. Besides, we'll have to come back for the boat."

The voice. The nightmare voice. The vivid haunting terrible voice, that seemed to murmur endearments all the while the hands skilfully and cruelly hurt him.

"We'll have to move soon."

It is happening again, and like the time before, there is nothing he can do to stop it. It will take away the new people, it will break him, it will start all over again. He cannot change it. And worst of all, he knows in an inchoate way that the greatest terror is yet to come. There is a sudden pause in the crashing of the waves, and a drawn prescient hissing.

"Jump now! Take the jacket, I'll swim. I can take care of him...."

Even now, the barb of laughter in his voice.

Take care? Aiie!

In the memory in the black at the back of his eyes, there are
words, different words. Help but not help. Words. There were words.
But then the overwhelming wrenching groan of the boat as she struck the rocks.

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Last Modified: 15 March, 2002