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The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke starts with a tragedy. When he is still very young – and still called Hemi - both his mother and sister are killed in a tribal war. His father, who is a revered chief, leaves Hemi to grow up at a missionary, coming to visit him frequently. Throughout his time at the missionary, Hemi is only too aware of how different he is, and despite his fast growing love for reading and writing, he feels that something is missing.

Soon after, Hemi’s father is also killed and Hemi, feeling unmoored and isolated, strikes out on his own. His knowledge and penchant for storytelling enable him to take up with new communities, but he is never able to fully belong. When a Māori man is killed in front of his eyes, he realizes that he cannot stay there long, and continues on his adventures. He takes up with another Māori tribe, and despite carving out a role for himself there, the feeling of something more haunts him. Eventually he travels to London, with an English artist, becoming his employee, becoming James Pōneke, a living exhibition.

It’s a character driven novel, and centers entirely around James’ point of view. The writing is fluid, and it evokes the tone of one listening to a story. James’ voice is strong and evocative. Like the magical lanterns one of the characters in the novel makes, Makereti beckons her readers through an enchanted doorway into another world, its glimmerings filtered through the marvelling eyes of James Pōneke. Despite the harsh realities that James continues to discover, he nurtures his yearning to learn more of the world and its people.

James’ love for stories enables him to imagine the wondrous and the strange, to imagine life beyond the borders of his world, and then take steps to cross those borders. His adventures teach him that while the wider world is more wonderful than anything he could have envisioned, it can also be horrifying and cruel to the extreme.

Somehow, his natural curiosity and love of stories infuse him with energy and curiosity to continue on. While he is angered and despairs at the Londoners’ perception of him as the exception to the “savage” and “inferior” Māoris, he manages to strive for a life of meaning and connection, finding comfort with the other marginalized people of London.

Based loosely on a true story, Makereti offers a different side of New Zealand colonial history, and I appreciated both the education and entertainment this novel offers. This is a fluid, slowly unfurling story, and it’s so easy to sink into James words and become immersed in his world. So grab a copy and become immersed.

Reviewer: Faustina Paustin

Penguin Random House, RRP $38.00


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