Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2019

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is another of the titles longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Literary Awards. But it was on my TBR months before the longlist was announced, thanks to an enticing review at Alys on the Blog.  I’ve mentioned this blog before: along with Booksellers NZ, it is the blog to follow if you want to keep up with what’s new and interesting in New Zealand books.

Tina Makereti is the author of Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, which I reviewed in 2016 and included in my Best Books of that year.  It was an impressive debut, but I’m not quite so enamoured of The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke.  I have to admit that my attention wandered a bit in the middle section of the novel…

This is the  blurb:

A vivid novel about a Maori boy exhibited in Victorian London – a provocative tale about what makes us human. ‘The hour is late. The candle is low. Tomorrow I will see whether it is my friends or a ship homewards I meet. But I must finish my story for you first. 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 show, 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 Pōneke revisits some of the themes of Where the Rekohu Bone Sings.  Once again a character leaves what has become an insecure home and ventures into the unknown in order to seek opportunities for a better future.  The story of James’ childhood in a New Zealand wracked by war is poignant: he sees and experiences terrible things that no child should see.  But missionaries teach the orphaned boy English and a chance encounter with an artist leads to a passage to England and employment as a specimen in an exhibition.  (The Artist, as James calls him, is the sort that came to the antipodes for the purpose of making a book.  Such books, about the quirky new colonial possessions of the empire, were very popular in 19th century England.)

As in Makereti’s debut novel, community is an important theme, but this novel invites the reader to consider inclusion and exclusion, together with civilisation and savagery. James is always caught between the rigid artifice of separate communities and he is always ‘other’, both in the way he takes pride in his individuality and in the way that others define him because of his race.  Yet even as his awareness of being exploited grows, James is no pathetic victim.  He is in London on his own terms:  he endures the curious gaze of the audience because that is his means of learning.  Because he is housed as a gentleman with The Artist’s family, he has access to a library and polite society, and because he is an exhibit he gets to attend Royal Society gatherings.  But his education is furthered in other unanticipated ways: without the approval of his hosts, he makes the acquaintance of other misfits: performers in freak shows, drunks, and gamblers.  The solidarity of this community is forged from an awareness that they are at the bottom of a stratified society.

BEWARE: SPOILER

In this novel, Makereti also explores the ‘othering’ of sexuality.  James’  dearest friends are the seaman Billy, and his lover Henri (Henrietta).  She has freedom of movement and agency because she dresses as a man.  She chooses not to marry because that would compromise the independence that few other working-class women could have had in 19th century England; her joyful life is in stark contrast to the circumscribed life of The Artist’s sister.  But almost inevitably, it seems, the love between Henri and Billy, both in male dress, is observed and perceived as obscene.  Tragedy results, compounded by a breach between Billy and James, because James, when drunk, made unwanted advances to Billy.

So James is alone and friendless, and ‘other’ in every way.

Back in 2011, I read Jane Sullivan’s Little People which fictionalised the story of a sideshow troupe of little people.  Sullivan’s novel gently satirised the curiosity about such troupes by inverting all the expectations that the inquisitive might have.  But Makereti’s novel goes further: it invites the reader to consider the effects of prejudice and discrimination.  And although it is set in the past, its themes are still relevant today.

The cover design by Cat Taylor of a Victorian-era cabinet of curiosities is very apt.  By the look of the image credits, it looks as if it’s been created with a great deal of thought, because each item has been sourced separately and references some aspect of the story.

According to her profile at Goodreads, Tina Makereti is of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā and, in all probability, Moriori descent.

Author: Tina Makereti
Title: The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand) 2018, 299 pages
ISBN: 9780143771562
Source: personal copy, purchased from Fishpond

Available from Fishpond: The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke $28.86AUD


Responses

  1. I’m not likely to read a NZ novel, let alone a Historical Fiction one, unless it pops up as an audio book, in which case I have almost no standards. I know the author wanted a way to look at otherness, but false depictions of Victorian London don’t appeal.

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  2. But why would you assume that it was a false depiction of Victorian London? There were PT Barnum-like freak shows, and People of Colour were exhibited in them. There were people whose sexuality was different, and had to conceal it from the objects of their affection as well as a punitive society. There were some women who did indeed dress and live as men, George Sand being an obvious example. What’s more: there’s an author note at the end of the book to say that she was inspired by a brief article mentioning a young Māori boy called Hēmi Pōmare/James Pōmara, and she reproduces in the book this newspaper article which made her imagine what his life in Victorian London might have been like. The Artist was also based on a real figure called George French Angas. And Makereti herself is of Indigenous heritage and heir to the stories of her own people.
    But also, why are you unlikely to read a NZ novel? There’s some fine, thoughtful writing by both Pakeha and Maori authors, some of whose books make it across the ditch to our bookshops and those who don’t are easily bought via Fishpond (sometimes secondhand).
    I wish I hadn’t sent this book to the OpShop now: I’d have sent it to you to see if I could change your mind!

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    • Not opposed to NZ, just too far behind with Australian. I struggle with HF, often because it’s researched. I prefer depictions written at the time.

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      • Pshaw! What does ‘far behind’ mean? We read for pleasure, there is no deadline or KPIs to be behind from!!
        Now as to HF, yes, I know what you mean, but IMO a good Leftie like you would relish HF that explores colonialism and its assumptions. And not just from our neck of the woods, but also some great HF coming out of Africa, which is asserting not just its right to be heard but also the importance of telling its own stories.

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  3. Can you tell I’m broken down? Catching up on blogosphere while mechanic does his thing.

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    • Oh dear, where are you? Somewhere with aircon, I hope… and nowhere near any fires…

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  4. […] The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti (Vintage, Penguin Random House), see my review […]

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  5. […] novels I’d reviewed myself, such as Patrick Evan’s Salt Picnic, Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke and Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum, plus those on my TBR such as C K […]

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