This is a story of an innocent abroad on the dark and corrupting streets of Victorian London.
James Poneke (or Hemi as he is really called) is a Maori orphan who has been raised by missionaries. When he is invited to England by Mr Angus, an artist visiting New Zealand, he accepts. James is educated (he both reads and writes English) and he wants to travel more than anything else, so he agrees to be a living exhibit at the artist’s show during the day. But at night he is free to explore London as he likes.
Of course, London is another world compared to his home in New Zealand and James finds the city both loud and dirty as he flits between genteel society and the gutter. He is living in two worlds, the one he came from and London, which is a place that is full of those who did not fit in anywhere else. This book explores both gender and race as James discovers who some of ‘the freaks of nature at the centre of things’ really are underneath. But the story is also a poignant reminder of imperialism and the loss of indigenous cultures.
I really enjoyed reading this marvellous book and could not put it down as the storytelling is both magical and riveting. There is some wonderful historical detail here as well and this charming story is told with gusto and with a vivid imagination. It is a story about trying to find a place in this world.
Sara Boorman 4/5
The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke by Tina Makereti
Lightning Books 9781785631528 pbk Aug 2019