“You only have one life in your possession, James. Why not make it of your most magnificent imagining?“
How do you go on when you’ve got no family member left and don’t know where you even belong? When you desperately want to change something about your life, but you don’t know what’s missing? These are only a few of the questions The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke picks up in much detail.
It was written by New Zealand novelist and creative writing teacher Tina Makereti, who has already won several prizes for her work, including the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize and the Ngā Kupu Ora Aotearoa Māori Book Award. Her books, essays and short stories often centre on Māori culture and identities.
What is the book about?
Her most recent novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, deals with the life and adventures of young James Pōneke, the son of a well-known Māori chief. In the beginning of the book, he loses first his mother and sister, then his father, and is raised by Christian missionaries. Later he abandons the mission and eventually finds a way back to his cultural roots by joining a group of Māori migrants – though still he is not at all satisfied with his life and is longing for a further education. When he meets a young English artist, he jumps at the opportunity and travels to London with him. There, James becomes the artist’s living exhibit at a museum and is offered an “English education”. He soon realises that people in Victorian London are way different from the people at home. During his adventures in the new city, he has to face multiple challenges, such as finding new friends and falling in love for the first time, dealing with multiple forms of racism, and seeking a sense of belonging.
How did I like the story?
I have to say that I enjoyed the characters very much. James is an adventurous, warm-hearted boy who wants to see the world, which is a character trait I can very much relate to. I loved the fact that he had the courage to leave his homeland behind in order to find his true self in a whole new country. But his best friend Billy really was my favourite character in this story. He gives James the opportunity to just be himself and makes London another home for him. He sees James for who he is, without judging him in any way. Also, I liked his enthusiasm and honesty. Their friendship was so pure and sincere.
Though I enjoyed the characters, I can’t entirely say the same thing about the plot. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the way it was written and the message it conveyed: to let your fears behind and live the life you want to live. The quote I put on top of this text was by far one of my favourites and really shows that it’s up to you what kind of life you live and that it depends on the decisions you make. There were many text passages like this where I felt very inspired and just loved Makereti’s style of writing. It really made me think about my own life in a certain way. However, even though the characters were beautifully developed, I sometimes had the feeling that there’s not much happening in this story. It was interesting to experience Europe through James’s eyes but at the same time, I wished that there was a little more “drama”. Especially during the middle part of the book, I sometimes had a hard time going on reading as there wasn’t much happening.
Summing up I can say that I enjoyed the writing style very much. There were so many text passages that left me wondering and thinking about my own decisions and the meaning of my life. Especially I wondered if I am living MY magnificent imagining or if there’s something I would want to change. Also, I kept thinking about the fact whether I could have been as brave as James was in all those dangerous situations he encountered.
I generally recommend the book to anyone who is interested in Māori culture and the way of life back in 19th century. Even though the book had its lengths from time to time, I still liked reading all about James’s story and desperately wanted to know whether he’d find his place of belonging in the world. Now it’s your turn to find out! For me, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is a good 3,5/5 stars.
Makereti, Tina. 2018. The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. New Zealand: Penguin Random House (ISBN: 978-1-78563-153-5)