By Elizabeth Ward

SINCE there is in a sense no beginning and no ending to this huge and extraordinary novel from "good old Godzone" (God's own country, New Zealand, Aotearoa, "the shining bright land"), it is difficult to choose a starting point for an introduction. It may help to know that its author, Keri Hulme, is a Maori, or New Zealand native; that she began The Bone People at the age of 18, completed it 12 years later, in 1978, and spent the next six searching in vain for a publisher; that the novel was finally brought out in 1984 by a New Zealand feminist collective, only to sell out its first edition and win two literary awards (one in New Zealand, another in the United States), and that just recently it was awarded England's prestigious Booker Prize for fiction.

The reason for the novel's fairytale success is that it is an original, overwhelming, near- great work of literature, which does not merely shed light on a small but complex and sometimes misunderstood country, but also, more generally, enlarges our sense of life's possible dimensions. So Godzone is made flesh, all irony momentarily transcended, as New Zealand's Maori heritage is brought to life. "O Thou art beyond all good but truly this land and sea is your dwelling place. . . ."

First novel it may be, but there is nothing timid or derivative about The Bone People. It i e People, but both artistically and philosophically, Hulme has also found an "overall pattern" to it, the concept or symbol of the spiral, which recurs over and over in the novel. "On the floor at her feet was an engraved double- spiral, one of the kind that wound your eyes round and round into the center where surprise you found the beginning of another spiral that led your eyes out again to the nothingness of the outside. Or the somethingness . . . The spiral made a useful thought- focus, a mandala . . . It was reckoned that the old people found inspiration for the double spirals they carved so skilfully, in uncurling fernfronds: perhaps. But it was an old symbol of rebirth, and the outward-inward nature of things . . ."

So, too, the novel as a whole moves between "something" and "nothingness," between the limitless richness and variety of life attested to by Kerewin's own lively mind and the black hole at the heart of the book which is the physical abuse of the child, Simon. "The drone of flies gets louder. The world goes away. The night has come." But a mere turn of the spiral can bring us suddenly to a quite different perception of "nothingness," life given a fresh start. "The rain has ceased. . . The wind is gone. The air is very still: the sea roar is magnified and easy birdcall is piercingly clear."

IN THE SAME WAY the novel shifts from Kerewin's sterile isolation in the tower to the community of sorts she forms with Simon and Joe, and from their horribly violent splitting-up to the final tenuous reunion. "E nga iwi o nga iwi," says Joe, invoking in this untranslatable phrase "the bones of the people or the people of the bones" -- his Maori ancestors, for whom community meant, simply, surival. And the child: "We have to be together. If we are not, we are nothing. We are broken. We are nothing." Because Joe is Maori, Simon Pakeha and Kerewin mixed-race, the pressure towards union throughout the novel probably has an allegorical import, bearing on questions of race-relations and conservation in New Zealand today which lie beyond the scope of this review. But from a purely literary point of view, the union of "Maoritanga" (Maori culture) and the English language in Keri Hulme's own novel is itself a powerful argument for her vision of unity. "They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strong and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change."

The Bone People does have its failings. The exuberant prose occasionally lapses into mawkishness or gush. The last third of the book, especially the semi-mystical invocation of the "Maoritanga," is too schematic. And Joe remains a tantalizingly undeveloped character compared with Kerewin. But the sheer flow of language and ideas sweeps you on. The novel might even be thought of as, itself, "something perilous and new," and therefore a very exciting event in the field of New Zealand literature and beyond.