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Keri Hulme. Stonefish.

Keri Hulme. Stonefish. Wellington, New Zealand. Huia. 2004. 240 pages. NZ$34.95. ISBN 1-86969-088-5

TWENTY YEARS AGO, Keri Hulme was a Booker Prize-winner. Stonefish stands on its own merits, the work of a writer of mature craft, varied experience of life, and with a clear vision of life or perhaps sets of values. This is a collection of short stories mingled with a few poems and comments on food, as in "Some Foods You Should Try Not to Encounter" (including the anthropophagic oyster). Hulme writes in the mode of future fiction mingled at times with down-to-earth fantasy. She depicts a drowning world, one of searing heat, a New Zealand dominated by Japanese culture, an archaeologist finding Lapita culture ware (which Polynesians ceased using centuries before New Zealand was discovered), sentient air balloons, a literal drop into a very Spartan hell, a visit to an Environment Court by threatening traditional spirit entities, and an entertaining miscellany of much else. Without preachiness, the stories and poems communicate anger at how we treat the living inhabitants of the world we share as limitless larder. The motif of food able to be gathered or home grown recurs as a criterion of ecological responsibility. Irresponsible self-interest is shown in a feedback loop with lack of real concern for other people and of the consequences of actions. The stories are very readable, in a very (to a New Zealand ear) accurate conversational tone, using frequent lightness of touch and humor. Hulme employs many Maori words but provides a comprehensive glossary.

The poems that begin and the end the volume suggest more basic concerns. The poems are about the Stonefish, interpretable as animal fossils or as New Zealand jade called greenstone (pounamu), considered in myth "a stone that once swam / ancient seas." The book's cover has a photo of a greenstone boulder awash. It's a good symbol for Hulme's concern that we must look beyond the surface, the event, the current interaction with someone, and note where things/people come from, where present things may move toward within a universal interconnectedness. Intimate with this is a concern that, just as a rough boulder when split and polished reveals a surface of unpredictable beauty and potential usefulness, so may the smallest things we chance upon, and the most passing human encounter. In short, Stonefish is a collection of fiction and poetry which combines enjoyableness, a convincing New Zealandness, and a depth of human and environmental understanding with Jane Austenly cool commonsense.

Bernard Gadd

New Zealand
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Author:Gadd, Bernard
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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