Anonymous review posted on behalf of one of the students
Note: The reviewer briefly discusses the novel’s ending.
The New Zealand writer Tina Makereti published her second novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, in 2018. It is about a Māori man who tells us about his life in the mid-19th century, from his tragic experiences at a young age to his global travels. The story mostly focusses on James’ life in London, where he meets many different people from different social levels. With some he finds friendship and love, with others disgrace and discomfort. The narrative of James Pōneke is very loosely based on a true story, which Makereti stumbled across in the form of a newspaper article. The novel contains many sensitive topics such as racism, rape, extreme homophobic violence and general violence.
A negative aspect I would like to talk about is the fact that the novel does not provide a trigger warning at the beginning. It contains a lot of violence in different forms, which could be harmful for some readers. Something else that might be viewed as negative is the fact that this novel does not have a happy ending. One could say that books always need happy endings, but I think that I would not have wanted this book to end on happy terms, or even imagine it to happen. Considering the various forms of discrimination and violence that Indigenous people historically had to endure, the unsanitized depiction of James’ struggles seems appropriate and convincing.
The main character’s emotions are relatable and also convincingly conveyed in Makereti’s narrative. Due to the many plot twists that are presented in the novel you never know what to expect, which makes reading this novel a real experience and adventure. I got drawn in, smiled on James’ incredible way of thinking and defending his honour (p. 112 et sqq.). My heart warmed due to the niceness of some people around James (p. 190 ff.). I cried as he lost something important to him (p. 234 et sqq.) and I felt the pain of one-sided love (p. 185). You feel all these emotions around James, which makes it harder but also easier to read this novel all at once.
The many topics Makereti chose to adress in this novel are all very well handled and put together. She does not make James himself all about his Indigenous self or him being gay the whole story. She blends his characteristics rather than reducing his personality to just one thing, which is often the case in books that include such topics. By highlighting different characteristics that make up his personality, the author allows the reader dig deep into his persona, understand why he acts the way he does, and connect to his emotions on a different level.
If I had to give this novel a rating, I would probably go with 4 ½ out of 5 stars. I really enjoyed reading this book, even when it was hard sometimes because of the depicted violence. I deducted half a point due to the missing trigger warning because I personally believe that some people could get triggered by the events that are adressed in this novel.
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke can be found on Amazon with the ISBN-10: 1785631527 or ISBN-13: 978-1785631528 for 11,42€ in paperback format/4,86 € in Kindle format, or you can order it in your local bookstore.