The Curse of Keri?

23 October 2013

As a Brit who regards New Zealand as almost a second home, it was great to see Eleanor Catton win the Booker Prize for her sprawling, epic novel The Luminaries, though it did make me think back to the last Kiwi to win the prize: Keri Hulme. Her novel, The Bone People, was pure Marmite for readers – some (including me) absolutely loved it, but others hated it like poison and it was probably the most contentious Booker winner ever.

The book could easily have never seen the light of day at all, because every major publisher rejected it at first. One rejection: “Ms Hulme certainly can write, unfortunately we don’t understand what she is writing about”, was hanging on Keri’s toilet wall at one time, and may well still be there. In the end she formed a self-publishing cooperative with three other women writers. The Bone People took off on word of mouth alone, and sold so fast that the mainstream publishers suddenly woke up to what they were missing. One of them signed her and put her on the path to her Booker success. However, those who were looking forward to her next novel were in for a long wait. Her long-suffering editor used to comment “I hope to publish it before I die”, and almost 30 years later, it still hasn’t appeared. There have been some poems and short stories from her but that felt a bit like being offered canapés when what I, and her many other admirers wanted was a five course meal.

Keri denied that she was suffering from writer’s block and there was certainly no failure of imagination, but unlike most writers, she doesn’t have the craft at the top of her list of priorities. According to Keri when I interviewed her some time ago, writing came a distant fourth behind the three Fs: family, friends and fishing, (no mention of any other Fs…) The fact that the second novel has still not appeared suggest that her priorities remain unaltered, but the fact that she’s now no longer the only Kiwi winner of the Booker, may encourage her to fire up the word processor again. I can guarantee at least one reader if she does.