The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti tells the story of a young Māori orphan boy, James Pōneke, who has a great desire for education and to see the world.
James, who is partially raised by missionaries, meets an English artist in New Zealand and follows him to London to be a living part of his exhibition.
James quickly finds a connection in the artist’s family. During the day he is at the artist’s disposal and presents himself in traditional tribal dress to gallery visitors, who scrutinize him and do not always make a secret of their disapproval of the Indigenous population. At night, James meets his friends (who include the sailor Billy and his lover Henry, or Henrietta, who only walks around in men’s clothes because of her own freedom) and discovers the neighborhoods of Victorian London.
When I started reading the book, I was almost shocked by the sadness and cruelty. And yet, the author manages to transfer the protagonist’s hope to the reader.
Tina Makereti manages to give young James a childlike naivety without it ever seeming annoying to the reader while reading the book. I could always understand the naivety and the hope that the protagonist has at the different stages of his journey, despite all the setbacks.
Here, the boy James’ search for his identity is introduced and clarified early in the book. Even in a new tribe he finds no real place, he finds no belonging.
The boy’s search for belonging and home touched me very much while reading. His apparent acceptance of the intolerance of his environment is both confusing and sad. And yet the author manages to give him a tiny bit of hope.
Tina Makereti makes sure to project feelings and images onto the reader’s mind with her readable, metaphorical writing style. For example, James’ feelings are expressed metaphorically when he visits the zoo in London with his hosts and discovers a tiger in one of the cages.
The striking description could be applied to James himself, who is also restricted by the displays of his origins in the artist’s exhibition and the many hostilities of London’s residents.
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke takes you along emotionally and it is an absolutely worthwhile read which includes themes such as friendship, freedom, family, home, belonging and identity.
I think that it is a great novel in the historical fiction genre which can also provide a good introduction to Māori literature.
Tina Makereti’s novel was first published in 2018, has 256 pages and is available as e-book (ISBN 978-1-78563-154-2) for less than 5€.