Blank pages: The great mystery of Keri Hulme’s ghost book

Steve Braunias investigates whatever happened to the most famous New Zealand novel that never was.

It was an exceptionally rare document, spoken of for many years with awe and wonder,and I saw it with my own eyes. I was in the same room as this unicorn, this huia. It existed. It was on a shelf. Keri Hulme said, “See those three volumes there?” We were sitting in her house in Ōkārito on a day of howling wind, the sea clawing at the shingle shore, in October 2004. She pointed at a stack of papers by her writing desk. The wind threw rain at the windows.

She was shy, anxious, chatty, witty, strident, as informed as she was opinionated, generous, fragile; as the author of The Bone People, she had once been in possession of genius, and flickers of it remained in her presence, her conversation. I loved meeting her and she was especially good fun when two old friends turned up at her door, and the afternoon turned to night over a bottle of Laphroaig single malt scotch. She smoked cigars. A wood fire warmed the room. Idly, I asked her when the three volumes of her long-awaited second novel, with the working title of Bait, would be published. Next year, she answered, just as idly. And then she added, “But I’m still not entirely satisfied with it…”

Hulme died on December 26. She was 74. Bait was never published in her lifetime, likely never finished, and may never see the light of day. “No comment,” said her nephew, Matt Salmon, this week.”The family have decided not to speak about anything to do with Keri to the media.” Their silence consigns the novel – one of the enduring mysteries of New Zealand and world literature, the book that never was – to slip back into the shadows.

It was not so much a book as a secret. Bait was Hulme’s riddle, and it kept the book world guessing, ever since she was catapulted to fame when The Bone People won the Booker Prize, stunningly, in 1985. It sold 1.4 million copies, she claimed during our interview in 2004. Bait was its intensely anticipated follow-up. There was a huge advance from a UK publisher, and Hulme issued many, many promises that it would be finished and delivered. “Next year,” she said when she won the Booker. It was always next year, in every interview over the years, although she had a variation of that promise in her last interview, withAli Ikram for Campbell Live in 2014. She told him it would be finished by the end of the whitebaiting season. She did not specify which season.

Joan Mackenzie dealt with the author throughout the 1990s when she was publisher at Pan McMillan. She’s now the national book manager at Whitcoulls. Mackenzie remembered Peter Straus, the London-based publisher at Picador, travelling to New Zealand to meet Hulme. “He did his best to wrestle it from her,” she said. “We all naively assumed it would come.” Next year, the end of the whitebaiting season …”I can confirm,” she said, “that it never arrived.”

Dr Bruce Harding of Christchurch enjoyed a long friendship with the author. He also saw the three volumes of Bait, at her West Coast home in Ōkārito, population not much; the manuscript was stored in folders, with thick plastic spines, in a bookcase by the window. He said, “She used to say, ‘It’s all in there,’ and she’d point across. I was very curious about it but I would never have gone over and opened it up and had a perve at the manuscript if she’d gone to the loo.

“I remember seeing it open, and it clearly looked like pages of a long piece of writing. But how much of it and how many pages of it exists is perhaps the pertinent question.”

In Gaylene Preston’s 1987 documentary on Hulme, the author said she had three briefcases full of notes for Bait. She estimated about 1200 pages. It’s a sweet little film; cinematographer Leon Narbey makes Ōkārito look ravishing. He lingers on a washing line. It’s hung with white sheets. The wind does its best to lift them from their pegs and scatter them like pages.

Christchurch writer Patrick Evans had a good description of Bait: “A ghost book.” It was spectral, unreal. What was actually inside those three volumes, those three briefcases? Evidence of genius, or rambling nonsense?

Evans is a former lecturer in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury. His MA class performed an exercise that imagined what Bait might read like. He said, “I remember that in the second half of the course, after The Bone People in the first half, we tried to assemble Bait out of bits and pieces of what she’d written in Stonefish [a book of short fiction and strange fragments published by Huia in 2004] and Te Kaihau/The Windeater [more short fiction and strange fragments, published by Victoria University Press in 1986] that sounded as if they belonged together.

“We sought within this material themes, characters and locales that seemed to recur – a strongly coastal locale, working class characters, adults and children who belonged together – and what we got was a novel based in a corner store in New Brighton, in Christchurch.”

A similar stitching might be achieved from other “bits and pieces” taken from Bait itself.Hulme gave Straus from Picador a sample of about 100 pages. Mackenzie told Warwick Roger, in a feature for North & South in 1996, that she’d read 150 pages: “It’s got elements of a thriller/mystery.” (It can’t have been very memorable. Asked now what she thought of it, she said, “I have no recollection of reading it.”)

Andrew Johnston, former books editor at the Evening Post newspaper, and who now lives in Paris, was sent to Ōkārito in 1994 to ask Hulme if Bait was on its way. “Yeah,” she told him, “it is.” He read a few pages and says now, “It was impressionistic, ‘poetic’ prose (for want of a better word) with a heavily mythological atmosphere in which it was hard to identify the outlines of a story.”

Auckland writer C.K. Stead, who in Canvas recently described The Bone People as “New Zealand’s finest novel”, was set to publish an extract from Bait in an anthology of South Pacific writing that he edited for Faber in 1994. This became the famous Faber incident: Hulme, along with Albert Wendt, Witi Ihimaera, and Patricia Grace, withdrew her story at the last minute. In 2022 it’s plain that Faber were tone-deaf to appoint a European to oversee a Pacific book. Hulme and her cohort were ahead of their time. In any case Stead remembers the extract vividly, and with admiration: “It was about her house having to act as an Ark in a time of flood, and the mail being delivered by boat. It had Hulme’s great talent for immediacy – getting ‘up close’. I thought the writing was brilliant.”

Fergus Barrowman published Hulme’s two thin books of fiction and fragments for Victoria University Press. He saw a chapter from Bait doing the rounds in the 1980s (“they were circulating”) and said, “My impression is that it was continuous with the world and style of The Bone People.” Pressed for any details, he recalled it was set in a fish and chip shop on the West Coast.

Two samples from Bait are held in archives at Auckland Central Library. They offer fascinating glimpses into the most famous book never published in New Zealand history.
The journal Spiral 5, from 1982, published before the Wellington-based collective took on The Bone People, contains a brief, eerie monologue by Kei, an old Māori woman fishing for lamprey on a lonely shore. It ends, abruptly, “Someone terrible is going to happen.”

A much longer and more assured extract appears in Te Ao Marama, a 1993 anthology of Māori writing. It’s told from the point of view of Jay, an old Māori woman who preserves fish, is invited to a house to eat stew (with Southland swedes, mashed potatoes and butter-steamed peas), and is saved from drowning in a river. It has the “immediacy” thatStead praised in her writing, and very much fits Barrowman’s description that the excerpt he read was “continuous with the world and style” of her great novel that won the Booker. Like The Bone People, it sensualises food and drink. LikeThe Bone People, you can feel the wet West Coast sand beneath your feet. LikeThe Bone People, it occupies a shared, deeply felt territory of Māori and Pākehā life – the book is years ahead of its time, effortlessly combining macronised te reo with her flowing English prose style.

I reread Hulme’s 1984 classic while researching and reporting this search for its ghostly sequel. It was even more powerful – and more crushing – than I remembered. Patrick Evans provided an insightful reading. He said, “It’s very clear that there’s a kind of death drive which impels the novel. It’s like a landslide. There’s no stopping it … I think those first two thirds are driven by genius. It took her there. I think it was bigger than her, which is the way of genius.”

The same themes inThe Bone People – love and violence – play out in the tantalising draft of Bait in Te Ao Marama. She writes, “Do you remember the little girl who stroked your arms and asked what the white marks were? Touched the seams traversing your thin breasts? And you saying, ‘Grief cuts, as this is a grief earring,’ holding forward the long grey-green pendant. Your lobe is so stretched that I can put my little finger in the hole. I do. ‘Grief?’ I ask. ‘Tears and pain for your mother, e Toi, for she who was my daughter.
And for my parents before her, there and there, and a sister I had, long ago,’ fingering the silvered scars across her upper arms. ‘She was killed by a disease the takata-pora brought with them, like your mother.’ I know all about the maremare: it’s the reason the last 15 Kāti Tio became just my grandparents and me. I am more interested in this tracery of grief than my tāua. ‘Didn’t they hurt, the cuts?’ She sighs, and sits me down on her lap to cuddle me close. ‘Not enough, my Toi, not enough.'”

This is genius at work, and hard at work: as Stead put it, she “gets up close”, in a touching scene between a Nana and her mokopuna that takes in colonialism, whānau, love, death. Maybe these were among the pages that Straus read when he came over from the UK to try and “wrestle” the book out of her to publish for Picador. (He did not reply to several emails sent this month. Perhaps he didn’t want to discuss the time he advanced a writer the rumoured fee of $300,000 and got nothing for it.) Easy to sense his excitement at the story she was writing, its artistry and its commercial appeal – as the follow-up to The Bone People, Bait was hot property.

Impressionistic, a thriller; a dairy, a fish and chip shop; an ark, a grey-green pendant; Kei, Jay … All that effort, all those drafts, and – nothing. Silence, promises unfulfilled. The closest Bait ever got to being published is in the parallel universe of GoodReads, that literary site where IQs go to die. You can see it for yourself. Bait is listed under the author’s name. Three people, including someone called Rob, claim to have read it. Two give it five-star rating. Rob, that savage critic of books which don’t exist, damned it with two stars.

It gets weirder. There is even a synopsis for Bait, online at the UK bookstore Waterstones: “Takiri is a very ordinary settlement on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. There is a small pub, a postal agency, and the Cookshop Near The End of The Earth. It is famous among people who fish, but nobody else knows it. The 20 or so locals are very ordinary too. On the surface…” The publication date is given as January 9, 2030. A ghost book from the future.

Why did she take so long to finish the book that it finally became unfinishable? “Another author once told me that he’d finished his novel, it was just that it was all in his head and he hadn’t got it down on paper yet,” said Barrowman. “But I think Keri had done a lot of writing.” Well, maybe that was the problem. There is something worse than writer’s block: writing too much.

“I assume she was a perfectionist in her own mind and therefore was endlessly doctoring and playing with it,” said Harding. The key word is “endlessly”. Maybe the three volumes turned into a formless mess, the book collapsing under the weight of years of accumulating themes and ideas and sub-plots– to write at length is to give in to a kind of hoarding.

As early as 1987,Bait started getting out of control, and spiralling into two books. Hulme spoke about that as a possibility in the Preston documentary. She confirmed it during interviews in the 1990s. Her working title for the other novel was On the Shadow Side. And so the legend of Bait became the legend of two books. She set herself an even bigger task: not just one mountain to climb, but a second. It was hard enough trying to scale the first.

When I interviewed her, she said, “I work on two contrary principles. One is a theory of nets, and one is a theory of echoes. Nets, as in catch fish, catch ideas, catch people.” She explained that The Bone People operated on “intricate system of echoes”. Bait “is much more of a net novel”. But perhaps it caught too much, and the net was too heavy to drag in.

Barrowman travelled to Ōkārito in January 1986 to work with her on the proofs of her book of short stories, Te Kaihau/The Windeater. “She told me then that she’d finished Bait. She’d written all of it, she just had to ‘put it in order’, was her term.”

He later published Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, the only other New Zealand novel to win the Booker Prize. He has worked with many of our best authors of the past four decades. But his assessment and praise of Hulme was of a writer in a class of her own. He bought The Bone People from Nigel Cox at Unity Books in Wellington just after it was published in February 1984: “I remember reading it that Easter. It was fantastic, unlike anything else. It completely enlivened and altered my sense of New Zealand literature.

“She was unique. A really gifted writer, incredibly well read, and she thought hard about things. She was hard on herself, a tough judge of her own work. I think her own judgment, her own high standards were probably the thing that got in the way.”

Like Harding, he speculated that her perfectionism was the problem. Patrick Evans had other ideas.

He met Hulme when she was appointed writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury. (As is the New Zealand way of things, they already had a connection: Spiral publisher Mariama Evans, who famously wore a korowai onstage when she collected the Booker Prize on Hulme’s behalf, was married to his twin brother.) “She was a funny old fish. I really liked her. One of my best memories of her is that she would drive around in a big white van with a whitebait net on the top, and you’d look out from the English Department on the third floor and you’d see this whitebait net threading its way out of the carpark. You couldn’t see the van, just this immense whitebait net exiting.”

That was a nice image of life outside a third-floor ivory tower but I hastened him back inside to ask him whether he viewed her in the pantheon of great New Zealand writers Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame. “Yes. Without a doubt. I would put Patricia Grace in there too. I think that she’s very substantial, in a quiet way.” He regarded her as not just a great New Zealand writer, but as a great Pacific writer: “She had this thing about setting her writing on the shoreline of a great ocean.”

Like Barrowman (“I would have loved to have seen another novel”), like Mackenzie (“Oh I think it’s terribly sad, a lost opportunity”), like everyone who has read and felt the power and genius ofThe Bone People, Evans was disappointed that Hulme didn’t provide another novel. He wondered whether it was due, in part, to the fame she experienced and perhaps suffered after winning the Booker.

“Something got in the way, I think,” he said. “Everyone wanted a bit of her. Quite a lot of my students used to say to me when term started, ‘Oh we all went over to see Keri at the [Ōkārito] lagoons in the holidays.’ They all wanted a bit of something from her, some kind of magic, and I think that kind of thing gets in the way when you’re a creative person. They need a lot of time to themselves. They need to keep away from people.

“I think in a way success wasn’t good for her. It didn’t make her a bad writer but it made her wary of writing. That’s just the sense I get. And if you write a book that’s a tremendous success, everyone is out to get you. ‘Second novel, great failure’, that kind of thing. But you don’t have to write a great second novel if you’ve written a great first one.
“I think it’s a shame she didn’t write more. But genius is bigger than the person that it’s in. They’re not in charge of the gifts, the gifts are in charge of them. There’s only a few writers who you would say had a real genius and we’re lucky for what we got with Keri.”

That was a nice way of looking at it. But those three volumes of Bait (and On the Shadow Side) are somewhere in her archive, spread among the family in Ōamaru, and at least some of it – the pages from Te Ao Marama – is evidence that her gifts endured. She was writing another great book. It disappeared; next year never came, the whitebait season never ended.

Hulme left Ōkārito in 2011 to live in Ōamaru, to look after her mother, Mary. The two were very close and Mary seems the only person who ever read more than a few pages of Bait. She died in a car accident in 2019, aged 92. Ill health affected Hulme’s final years. She was unable to email; it’s unlikely she was able to put in any serious work on the novel that eluded her for so many years.

Barrowman talked about the ancient practice of sending pages by fax. In the 1980s and 90s, Hulme was a demon faxer who enjoyed firing off correspondence by dial-up. Barrowman had cause to look for her letters not long ago. “I’ve got the pages, but they’re blank,” he said. “They’ve all faded to nothing.”

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