By 1985 Keri Hulme had won several New Zealand awards for her writing, including the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award (1975), the Maori Trust Fund Prize (1977), the ICI Writing Bursary (1982) and the New Zealand Writing Bursary (1983). The bone people, her first novel, was awarded both the Mobil Pegasus Award and the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction in 1984, the year of its first publication.
The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize awarded annually to the best English-language novel by a Commonwealth citizen was announced on 30 September 1985. Hulme’s The bone people was up against Illywhacker by Peter Carey, The battle of Pollocks Crossing by J.L. Carr, The good terrorist by Doris Lessing, Last letters from Hav by Jan Morris, and The good apprentice by Iris Murdoch. Though Hulme didn’t think The bone people stood a chance, the London bookies kept it safe at odds of 5–1. While the bookies’ favourite was The good terrorist, Carey’s publishers were so confident that they prepared a reprint of Illywhacker with ‘Winner of the Booker Prize 1985’ on the cover.
The decision was far from unanimous. Indeed, 1985 consistently appears on lists of Booker controversies and ‘jury bust-ups’. The actress Joanna Lumley, who was on the judging panel, abhorred The bone people, believing it glorified violence against children. She could not attend the final judging but sent in her comments in advance and asked that she be contacted ‘if it got to a scramble’. Booker’s administrator, Martyn Goff, read out her comments in the face of opposition from the chair, politician Norman St John Stevas, who did not believe Lumley should have been on the panel in the first place. The panel was reportedly split between Hulme and Carey, but Lumley was not called in. She was furious when she discovered that The bone people had been declared the winner.
Of her experience judging the Booker in 1985, actress Joanna Lumley would later comment that: ‘The so-called bitchy world of acting was a brownie’s tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing’.
Hulme was on a promotional tour of the United States and Canada and did not attend the award ceremony at the Guildhall, London. Her friends and supporters Miriama Evans, Marian Evans and Irihapeti Ramsden were in the audience and collected the award on her behalf. The three women were members of Spiral, the non-profitmaking women’s collective that had published the first two editions of the novel after other prospective publishers sought substantial revisions. When rung to be told of her win, Hulme said: ‘You're not pulling my leg, are you? … Bloody hell – it’s totally unbelievable!’ It was not only New Zealand’s first Booker Prize; it was the first time a first novel had ever won.
Hulme, who could look forward to royalties from increased sales of the book, gave the £15,000 (NZ$38,000) prize money to her mother and sister. Such was the demand that The bone people actually fell off the New Zealand bestseller list in January 1986 – not for lack of interest, but because the publishers had run out of copies. It has now sold more than a million copies and been translated into nine languages.
Since The bone people won the Booker Prize, two other New Zealand novels have been in with a chance. Patricia Grace’s Dogside story was longlisted in 2001, while Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip made it on to the shortlist in 2007; it lost out to Anne Enright’s The gathering.
Image: detail from the cover (NZ Book Council)