January 2002
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Watch the Hands: Non-Verbal  Communication in The Bone People
Keri Hulme places human relationships at the heart of The Bone  People. The novel examines the forces that bind people together, including friendship, family, and ethnicity, as well as those that keep them apart. The  astounding depth and complexity with which Hulme renders her characters and their relationships is among the novel's greatest strengths. To convey so many shades of human experience, Hulme endows her characters with a non-verbal way of communicating: by using their hands. There is nothing remarkable about an author choosing actions instead of words for effect, but the characters' penchant for non-verbal communication becomes more important in light of their status as outsiders. As Maori, Joe and Kerewin are on the fringes of the Pakeha culture that dominates New Zealand. Simon is on society's outskirts as well because of his muteness and uncertain history. Hulme conspicuously draws attention to her characters' hands and the ways that they use them to communicate, which may be a  means of compensation for their status as outsiders.
In addition to the amount of detail afforded to hands, two items provide grounds for examining the motif further. First, the act of holding hands is given thematic weight in the novel's beginning and ending, which blur together to give the story an intentionally circular shape. In the prologue, which could be more aptly characterized as the epilogue from a different point of view,  Kerewin joins Joe and Simon: 
But for now there is the sun at her back, and home here, and the free wind all round.

And them,  shuffling ahead in the strange-paced dance. She quickens her steps until she has  reached them.

And she sings as  she takes their hands. (3) 

The significance of Kerewin's action is not clear upon first reading but the tone of the passage indicates happiness and some type of resolution. Even without the context that the story provides later, the passage connects hand-related imagery with thematic impact near the beginning of the story. The  connection calls attention to the hand-related images and messages that follow,  which are further emphasized when Kerewin is puzzled by Simon's gestures to Joe.  She thinks,  "You need eyes like an  archerfish, able to see what happens on two planes at once. One set for watching the hands, and the other for watching whatever it is he mouths" (53). Kerewin's  observation could serve as an apt instruction to the reader, who can infer  nearly as much from hand movements as from speech. 

Of the three main characters, Simon uses his hands to communicate in the most obvious way. He uses a self-devised form of sign language to compensate for  his inability to speak. Like Joe and Kerewin, though, Simon also uses his hands to communicate in more subtle ways. The boy shuns the grasp of people he doesn't  like or trust but is quick to take the Joe's and Kerewin's hands. His handholding becomes attached to an array of emotions, including happiness, anger, and fear. The second time Kerewin discovers the bruises left by Joe's  abuse, as well as in the first, the boy takes her hand:   "Nothing, he emphasizes, shaking her hand once, ready to touch as ever but flinching before the cold  anger in her eyes" (137). 

Simon's  handholding helps him to convey emotions that he might not be able to put into words even if he could talk. For example, when the boy finds Kerewin pondering her ties to him and his father:  "And as if he were waiting for the cue, Simon  takes her hand. . . . He has drawn her hand against his chest. She can feel the steady clock of his heart. He hasn't made any other move, but she feels as though he's saying something" (251). By taking his loved ones'  hands, he demonstrates a willingness for reconciliation  with Joe after a beating, for  example, and peace that strikes a contrast with his destructive tendencies. For  Simon, handholding is a way of bridging communicative and emotional chasms and connecting with people. When he is removed from Joe's custody, he laments that there will be  "No familiar touch, no handholding, no-one he knows" (386). 

The importance of Simon's hands is reinforced when he is injured while fishing with Kerewin and Joe:   "Simon's Thumb. It all goes sweetly until that happens" (214). When Simon lodges a fishing hook in his thumb, communication among the trio breaks down almost immediately. After the injury, Simon is unable to act as a bridge and the peace that Joe and Kerewin had established since she  thrashed him on the beach dissolves into an argument about the boy. 

Simon's hands are hurt again when, upset about Binny Daniels' death and being hit by Kerewin, he goes on a window-smashing spree. The constable who  finds Simon holds both his bleeding hands together in one hand (306). The  injury to Simon's hands occurs when he is most separated from Joe and Kerewin  because of his inability to communicate the emotions caused by seeing Binny's  corpse. As in the fishing incident, an injury to Simon's hands precedes a breakdown among the three main characters. 

Kerewin's reluctance to touch conveys nearly as much about her as Simon's  affinity for handholding relays about him. Simon recognizes Kerewin's aversion  to handholding soon after meeting her:   She takes her hand away to hold it  closer for him to see, poised between her forefingers. She doesn't like holding  hands (64). Later, Joe thinks that she hates touching of any sort (174).  Kerewin's reluctance to be touched is a manifestation of her emotional  isolation. Her lack of physical contact underscores the distance—self-imposed  or otherwise—between her and her family, the community, and Joe and Simon.  Because for much of the novel she avoids touching, it adds metaphoric weight to the image of her taking Joe's and Simon's hands at the end of the story. The gesture of happily initiating contact indicates that she has closed the distance that she struggled to keep between herself and the Gillayleys. 

In addition to avoiding touching others, Kerewin uses her hands to communicate in more abstract ways. As an artist, her hands are the conduit that  allows her to express  emotional and  subconscious matters that would be difficult, painful, or impossible to put into  words. Early in the story, she thinks, "No need of people, because she was  self-fulfilling, delighted with the pre-eminence of her art, and the future of  her knowing hands" (7). 

Kerewin's  guitar is also a hands-related outlet for expression. It is not coincidental that she sends her guitar to her family's home when she is alone and decaying in a hut at the height of her illness and isolation. Her yearning to play the instrument after it is gone, sent without a note, conveys her inner conflict between the suppressed need to communicate and her pattern of isolation. 

Hulme emphasizes the importance of Kerewin's hands in two ways: their  decoration and decay. As she explains her affinity for rings to one of Joe's  relatives, she thinks to herself,  "Each ring feeds my fingers with its  particular virtue" and then considers the qualities of each stone (291). The  passage draws the reader  s attention to Kerewin  s fingers and reinforces her  earlier notion of hands as "sacred things. . . .tongues of those who cannot  talk" (71). 

The infection  of Kerewin's hands, like her forsaking of the guitar, reinforces her isolation  and emotional turmoil:   "For some time, they had been infected. When journeying through a town she hid them in gloves. . . . Swollen, empurpled, leaking pus  from every crack" (418). Her observation occurs when she has been—from her  point of view—cut off from the Gillayleys forever, which suggests a connection between their severed ties and her hands' disease. 

Kerewin's hands may receive the most detailed treatment in the novel, but Joe's express an equally vast spectrum of emotions. After Simon has been removed from Joe's custody, the boy thinks,  "And home is Joe, Joe of the hard hands but  sweet love" (395). Indeed, Joe's hands seem to be alternately guided by rage and adoration. After Simon visits Binny Daniels, a pederast, Joe wraps the end of his belt around his fist and beats Simon until the child is gone beyond begging for it to stop and his own hands are shaking (136). When Joe beats Simon for  the last time, the boy fights against the hand that pins him down (309). In  such scenes, Joe's hands are portrayed as instruments of violence that may stem from things that he can't verbalize: resentment toward Simon, whose presence helped keep him from finishing school; the frustration of dead-end work in a Pakeha factory; the tribulations of being a minority and the loss of his culture. 

The gentle touch that Joe's hands can deliver strikes a contrast with the damage that they inflict. When Kerewin meets Joe, she looks at his hand and wonders at the way it has suddenly linked them all   (46). Joe's touches often  act as a means of reconciliation with Simon, including after a beating:   He clucked over his child's bruised face, over the obvious pain he showed walking,  and—strangely to Kerewin's eyes—held Simon's hands a long moment (119). By holding Simon's hand or tousling his hair, Joe is able to help mend the frequent ruptures in their relationship. His gestures help make him one of the most complex characters in the novel by portraying his instruments of violence as equally capable of doling out affection. 

At the low  point of Joe's despair, after breaking his arm by jumping off of a cliff, he tries to splint the arm and watches his hand darken and engorge (342). Joe's  darkening hand loosely fulfills a pattern of afflicted hands when characters are  physically or emotionally cut off from the others. The pattern underscores the  importance of hands in the novel: they act as a channel for the things that the  characters are not willing or able to verbalize. The relationships would emerge—by virtue of dialogue, other characters' observations, interior monologues,  etc.—as incredibly complex without the hands motif. By emphasizing their  reliance on hands, though, Hulme shows the difficulty that three outsiders have in communicating—even among themselves.

(c) Dylan Gallagher.  All Rights Reserved.