THE NOVEL that nobody wanted -- publishers could barely contain their indifference and it limped into print thanks only to nightshift work by feminist volunteers -- strode off with England's Booker Prize for fiction.

Keri Hulme, little-known New Zealander and one-time tobacco- picker, fish and chip frier and wool mill worker, defied the critics, the literary form followers and the bookies to take the s15,000 prize and a guarantee of best-seller returns for her long (470 pages) work, The Bone People.

A prose-poem about Maori myths, it is notable for the absence of anything resembling a sex scene throughout. Some have suggested that its wholesale rejection by commercial publishers had much to do with the missing ingredient.

Hulme, 38, who is now writer in residence at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch -- her home town -- pipped Doris Lessing and her much fancied favorite, The Good Terrorist for the prize. The judges, led by Norman St.John-Stevas, also passed over Iris Murdoch's The Good Apprentice and the well-liked J.L. Carr's contribution to the six-title short- list, The Battle of Pollock's Crossing.

The Bone People, 12 years in the writing, almost failed to see the light of day when it was finished. Hulme was reluctant to consider any alterations to her manuscript.

"Which is why I was going to embalm the whole thing in a block of Perspex when the first three publishers turned it down on the grounds, among others, that it was too large, too unwieldy, too different when compared with the normal shape of the novel," she later wrote.

The book was eventually taken up by a feminist publishing group, the Spiral Collective, in Christ- church, in 1981.

After another fruitless search for a publisher and an abortive attempt to raise funds from the New Zealand advisory committee on women -- which thought it "did not give a positive enough image of women" -- support was eventually found. The collective arranged typesetting on the cheap and did their own proof-reading and pasting-up, frequently at night, to produce 4,000 copies.

It went on to win the New Zealand Book Award and the Pegasus prize.

Hulme has also published poetry and prose. The Silence Between: Moeraki Conversations appeared in 1982 and a collection of short stories, The Wind Eater, was published in the same year.