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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.

NZ Listener

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Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback


    September 3, 2018

    RHNZ Vintage

    304 pages

    RRP $38.00

    Online retailers

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  • EBook


    September 3, 2018

    Random House New Zealand

    336 pages

    Online retailers

    • iBooks NZ
    • Amazon Kindle
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I am not yet seventeen years of age, but I have a thought that I may be dying. They don’t say that, of course, but I can read it in their many kindnesses and the way they look at one another when I speak of the future. Perhaps I do not need their confirmation, for surely I wouldn’t see all I can in the night if I weren’t playing in the shadow of death. So when they come and ask about my life, I tell them all. What else is there for me to do? I don’t feel it then, the brokenness of my own body. I feel only the brokenness of the world.

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Book Clubs

Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 6 September 2018

Also by Tina Makereti