From an early age, James Poneke has had to play a role to survive. But what of the real James?
While exhibited as a curiosity, a Maori boy turns his gaze on Victorian London.
‘The hour is late. The candle is low. Tomorrow I will see whether it is my friends or a ship homewards I meet. But first I must finish my story for you. My future, my descendant, my mokopuna. Listen.’
So begins the tale of James Poneke: orphaned son of a chief; ardent student of English; wide-eyed survivor. All the world’s a stage, especially when you’re a living exhibit. But anything can happen to a young New Zealander on the savage streets of Victorian London. When James meets the man with laughing dark eyes and the woman who dresses as a man, he begins to discover who people really are beneath their many guises.
Although London is everything James most desires, this new world is more dark and dazzling than he could have imagined.
“The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke is many things: part unsparing colonial reckoning; part fraught coming-of-age memoir; part PT Barnuminflected tale of spectacle, showmanship and the picaresque. James leaves New Zealand and arrives in London naively hoping for enlightenment. He learns that there is more to his past and his present than meets the eye. And his future will surely defy imagination.”
Maggie Trapp, NZ Listener
“At the book's conclusion, he [James Poneke] is hopeful the problems he has faced will not exist for others in the future. His golden vision is poetic and full of irony - much like Makereti's novel.”
Paul Little, North & South
“Tina Makereti's characters move among places and people where mundane blends with marvellous; colloquial with lyrical; violent with self-sacrificial ... Makereti is able to take a moment and examine its reality, even as she turns it into something symbolic and transcending ...”
David Hill, Canvas/NZ Herald
“The novel does very interesting things around the idea of subject and object within that colonial relationship . . . [James Poneke's] a fully formed character, very believable . . . [the novel] is suggestive and thoughtful as well as being a very compelling story and Victorian London is fascinating . . . it's a great story.”
Louise O'brien, Radio NZ
“Like her previous Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, this novel relies on scrupulous research. It, too, revives the dry bones of history and turns it into a living and fascinating story.”
Steve Walker, Sunday Star-Times
“Although The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke is a work of fiction, the issues Makereti addresses are as relevant today as in the 1800s, particularly with respect to negotiating multiple social, cultural and sexual selves. What is most striking about the story, however, is not its content but the voice of its narrator. Personal in intonation but formal in language and strongly introspective, his words and images invoke both the mannered tone of educated society and the rhetorical style of whaikorero . . . The effect is of a kaumatua' s voice issuing from a young man's lips, forcefully conveying the extent to which James' experiences have aged him and how, at the end his life, he is finally able to reconcile the disparate strands of his identity. It is a voice that spans the ages, as surprising to the contemporary reader as to its 19th-century audience, and one that echoes long after the book is set down.”
Cushla McKinney, Otago Daily Times
“In this novel Tina Makereti explores questions of identity, cultural collisions and Victorian attitudes to race, colonialism and prejudice. . . Fascinating reading.”
Australian Woman's Weekly
“Listener Best Books of 2018: Makereti’s second novel, a story about a young Maori becoming a living exhibit in a Victorian London museum presented as a letter to his descendants, is an imaginatively compelling tale of colonial and cultural conflict.”
“This is a great story and a wonderful book.”
The Grey Warbler, Waiheke Weekender
“On an intellectual level, The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke is highly satisfactory.”
John McCrystal, NZ Books
“Best Aotearoa Reads 2018: Days after finishing Makereti’s new novel, I was still thinking it through—mulling on its big themes: the twinned violence of colonisation and its subsequent exhibition, cross cultural exchange, love, subjugation and desire. I love how Makereti manipulates time in her writing. . . Makereti’s book points outside of itself to a potential future; the novel is not an end point in itself; words and people are one point in an interconnected chain of being.”
Thomasin Sleigh, The Pantograph Punch
“What an unusual book and what a treat. This is a novel about cultural identity, resilience and adaptability. . . . Her understanding of Maori in both the ancient and modern worlds infuses James' story with a sense of realism. Her sense of place in Victorian London is perfectly described. What a delight.”
Linda Thompson, Daily Post
“Tina Makereti, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngati Rangatahi and Pakeha descent, writes fiction that has always captivated me and her most recent novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke, is no exception. Published last year, and longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, I am awarding it my 2018 Fiction Bouquet. I have invented this award to underline the supreme reading pleasures Tina’s novel gifted me. I begin with the language and the way her sentences are so exquisitely crafted. They carry story, character, setting and significant issues with ease and fluidity, as though they work behind the scenes giving life to the narrative features. Yet I am acutely aware of the writing. The way a particular word choice makes a sentence sing, the way voice gives flesh and feeling to James to the point he is utterly real to me. . . . One reading track is the abundance of wonder and awe as James absorbs London on diverse settings. . . . A second reading track is the prevalence of cages and containments. . . . Perhaps the most important track is the way the telling becomes a remembering, the way the lost and faded self comes to light as James speaks to the past, the present and the future, to his imagined mokopuna. For me imagination, these imaginary stories, becomes a way of adjusting the viewfinder so that we may unsettle master narratives and engage with a different point of view. We get to see James as an acutely intelligent person who struggles with his own crises and trauma and who experiences his own joy and epiphanies. The book is a timely read. As we learn to make connections with respect and empathy, in a world that has privileged hierarchies and conflict, Tina’s novel is a welcome handbook on how to listen. It affected me deeply, at the level of both heart and mind.”
Paula Green, Poetry Shelf
Ockham New Zealand Book Awards
Longlisted • 2019 • Acorn Prize