A review of Tina Makereti’s latest novel, a book which focuses on the experiences of a Māori orphan
*Warning: contains spoilers*
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, written by Tina Makereti, narrates the live of Hemi/James, who showcases his experiences as an orphaned Māori boy in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and in London. His life seems to repeat itself. In the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear that he wants to find a place where he can stay and attain as much knowledge as possible. In the end, we also realize that all that Hemi wants is to find a place he can call home, and even though he did acquire the knowledge he longed for, he once again lost nearly everyone who played an important role in his life.
But my lips remained closed, and as the reciting and storytelling went on into the night I felt more and more the need to curl into the shadows. These were their stories of belonging, not mine. I properly understood this word ‘orphan’ for the first time then.Chapter 3
Throughout the novel we witness Hemi gain friends and make acquaintances, yet he never really feels at home. He believes that he needs to distance himself and that his unrequited love for a man he meets in London is the reason he can never get too close to the latter and his partner. The only time that he does display his feelings, he sees this friendship fall apart.
But love doesn’t care for reality. Each morning he was there with me, in my arms, my desire a heat that would only leave me cold. I kept it from everyone, and it kept me from everyone.Chapter 14
Hemi loses all his friends and also his lover Ethan (whom he meets on a ship that is later wrecked). In the end, he does not have anyone aside from the artist and his family. It was the artist who brought him to London, and his family who let him stay with them after his return to London. Hemi considers the family of the artist to be the closest people he has at this point in his life. Even though the artist brought him to London to be an exhibition piece at an art gallery about Māori culture, Hemi will always stay in his and his family’s debt.
I was a fool, I knew it to my core, and what’s more I suspected I brought ill-luck to all those who loved me. I had lost so many. The ones who remained untouched were protected by their station in life, their place in society so carefully constructed by people like them.Chapter 19
In conclusion, I think that Tina Makereti successfully brings to life the story of a seemingly doomed orphan boy. The themes of despair and ill fate are especially prominent in the novel. It depicts not only the seemingly lost orphan boy, but also highlights all kinds of other lives that were influenced by industrialization. On an overarching level, Makereti shows how easily someone can drift away from their roots, in combination with the constant longing to truly belong somewhere.
Reference: Markereti, Tina. The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. Hertfordshire, Lightning Books Ltd, 2019.