It's a place, said [Keri Hulme], 58, with "iconic status both among New Zealanders and overseas travelers," but many are less interested in the wildlife than in her, a quarry who can prove even more elusive. Such is the enduring appeal of Hulme's first novel, "The Bone People," winner of the 1985 Booker Prize, that devotees are still beating a path to her door. On this 20th anniversary year of her Booker victory, I went again to visit an author whose book had moved and inspired me (the last time had been on the 10th anniversary). I also wanted to see what progress, if any, had been made on her second novel, which remains unfinished.
"The Bone People," reissued by Louisiana State University with a new preface by Hulme, revolves around three troubled central characters -- a misanthropic artist, an abused child and a drunken, violent woodcarver -- whose lives become entangled on the South Island beaches of New Zealand. Hulme's mix of prose and poetry and her use of Maori myth and language (Hulme is of Maori descent) repelled as many readers as it entranced. But what made her win most controversial was that enough jurors favored a newcomer over literary giants such as Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Peter Carey.
In the beginning, Hulme's novel was almost stillborn. A succession of publishers rejected it, one declaring: "Ms. Hulme certainly can write, unfortunately we don't understand what she is writing about." That letter still hangs on her wall. In the end, the book was published by a women's self-publishing collective. On the strength of word of mouth alone, the first edition of 3,000 copies sold out in six weeks, and the second edition did the same in three days. By then, publishers were clamoring to buy the rights. It has gone on to sell millions of copies worldwide, but since then her readers have had to content themselves with essays, short stories and poetry instead of another novel -- a succession of hors d'oeuvres when most preferred a three-course meal.