The Bone People Summary, Themes, Characters & Synopsis

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About the Book- The Bone People

TitleThe Bone People
AuthorKeri Hulme
Publication Year1984
PublisherPenguin Books
No. of Pages450 pages
Reading age18 years and up
GenreContemporary Fiction
AwardsMan Booker Prize (1985)
SettingNew Zealand, primarily on the remote coast of South Island


The main characters of “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme are:

  1. Kerewin ➜ She’s an artist and writer who lives alone.
  2. Simon (Joe) ➜ A boy who can’t speak and has been through tough times.
  3. Joe’s Father (Hera) ➜ A man with a troubled past who’s trying to take care of Joe.


The themes of “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme are:

  1. Discovering Who You Are ➜ Characters trying to figure themselves out.
  2. Healing and Getting Better ➜ Helping each other through tough times.
  3. Relationships ➜ How they connect with each other.
  4. Different Cultures ➜ Learning about Maori culture and others.
  5. Family and Friends ➜ The importance of loved ones.


The Bone People is both a psychological study of three social outcasts and a bildungsroman about how they overcame obstacles and personal faults to unite and create an odd family. The book might be seen metaphorically as a guide for how the many segments of New Zealand society can join and live side by side as a cohesive, albeit nonbiological, family.


The book is broken up into a Prologue, an Epilogue, and four main portions. The Prologue gives readers an insight into the protagonists’ lives just before the book commences. The first and longest portion shows how the three characters initially interact and gradually become closer to one another. Kerewin Holmes, the main character, seems to represent certain facets of the author’s personality because he self-identifies as aromantic & asexual and has worked in hard labor. But the main character is an artist, not a writer. After unexpectedly winning the lotto and breaking off contact with her family, she seeks solitude and constructs a tower far from other people on the beach.

Maori manufacturing worker Joe Gillayley has lost his wife and baby kid and is slipping towards alcoholism. Simon, Joe’s foster son, was discovered three years ago after being found traumatized and silent on the beach by a storm. While Joe and Kerewin both identify as Maori, Joe looks more like his identity while Kerewin looks more like her European, or pakeha, ancestry. Simon, who has a fair complexion and is blonde, is most likely an Irish earl’s descendant. After being subjected to repeated physical abuse and trauma, he is unable to communicate. Despite her antisocial inclinations, Kerewin finds herself drawn to Simon and Joe because they share her feelings of alienation and discontentment with their lives and environment. After learning of Joe’s physical abuse of Simon, Kerewin is left feeling very disappointed in him as the section comes to a close.

The three main characters’ trip to Kerewin’s family’s bach, or compact beach cottage, is the subject of the second section. After confronting Joe about his abuse, they engage in a battle in which Kerewin beats Joe but also has sharp stomach pain. Kerewin is taken aback by Joe and Simon’s quick pardon of bodily harm and finds her relationship with Joe largely repaired. In addition, she discovers through one of their chats that he suffered from polio for years and was also mistreated as a youngster. When their vacation comes to an end, Kerewin urges that Joe refrains from physically punishing Simon. The guy agrees, but only if Kerewin shares some of the burden of raising the kid. He is also thinking of marrying her, but he chooses to wait till they return to town.

In the third section, Kerewin confides in Joe that she is an asexual who detests physical touch. The man is sympathetic, but he doesn’t seem to realize the significance of her confession, and he still views her as a sexual object.

When they are both intoxicated one night at the pub, Joe interprets a song Kerewin performs about Simon incorrectly and takes offense. They argue and part ways. Simon discovers a corpse in the interim and is horrified. He visits Kerewin in search of solace, but the artist is agitated because she believes the youngster has taken a missing knife. Simon attacks her, shattering a unique guitar, and then flees. He ultimately chooses to vent his feelings by damaging a variety of public facilities, which forces the police to visit Joe & inform him that the issue is severe. Joe loses his cool and beats Simon severely. The youngster responds by stabbing him with a glass shard before falling asleep.

Both of them wind up in the hospital after it comes out that Joe nearly killed Simon. The man’s abuse is no longer able to be concealed, and the police are called. Joe heals from the stabbing fairly fast, but the youngster is in a coma for a very long period. Upon awakening, it is apparent that he has lost his hearing & that his brain has experienced considerable harm. Joe is given a jail term of several months. To flee the village, Kerewin burns down the majority of the tower.

The characters’ unique journeys around New Zealand are followed in the last section. After completing his term, Joe ventures into the bush, falls, and is rescued by an elderly, wise man who says he has been watching for him. He turns out to be the keeper of a Maori artifact—a boat containing a holly stone imbued with a portion of the island’s energy. Joe accepts to take on the role of new protector after viewing the subterranean lake where the boat remnants are buried. 

The cave entrance is buried, nevertheless, by an earthquake. Unexpectedly, the stone shows up outside and waits for Joe to carry it back to his village. Kerewin is currently battling a disease, most likely a tumor in her stomach, but because she refuses contemporary medical care, her ailment is untreated. She travels to a lodge in the mountains, where she dwells for a while before being helped to heal by a ghost or a wise person. With a determination to make apologies, she returns to the town as well.

Simon is in foster care, but he is quite unhappy. Joe and Kerewin both seem to have abandoned him, and he longs to return home. He keeps evading the house until he succeeds in one of his tries and makes it to the town. He arrives early, though, since neither Joe nor Kerewin have arrived.

The epilogue provides a satisfying conclusion. Back in the community are the three main characters. Kerewin reconstructs her house, this time as a sociable spiral where others may congregate. She adopts Simon so that they may start a family—albeit an unconventional one—when Joe returns. Without Kerewin’s knowledge, Joe makes contact with her family, and they all show up to make amends. In Kerewin’s new house, the novel finishes with a large, boisterous gathering of Kerewin’s and Joe’s family members.


What is “The Bone People” about?

It’s a story about people trying to heal and connect in New Zealand.

Who are the main characters?

The main characters are Kerewin, Simon (Joe), and Joe’s dad, Hera.

Is it a happy story?

It has both sad and happy parts, but it’s mostly about healing.

About the Author- Keri Hulme

Full NameKeri Hulme
BirthdateMarch 9, 1947
BirthplaceChristchurch, New Zealand
NationalityNew Zealander
OccupationAuthor, Poet, and Painter
Famous Works– The Bone People” (1984)
– Man Booker Prize (1985)
Writing StyleSymbolic, Poetic, and Unique
Literary GenreContemporary Fiction

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