Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2019

The Cage, by Lloyd Jones

I bought Lloyd Jones’ new novel The Cage as soon as it was released so I was pleased when it was nominated for the Ockham’s New Zealand Literary Awards.  I have other appealing nominees on my TBR too but I wanted to read this one first of all.  But The Cage is such a devastating, confronting novel, I found myself not wanting to continue, yet unable to stop reading.

I knew Jones to be an author who writes about outsiders, most recently for me in Hand Me Down World. But The Cage is something else again.  This is the blurb:

Two mysterious strangers appear at a hotel in a small country town.
Where have they come from? Who are they? What catastrophe are they fleeing?
The townspeople want answers, but the strangers are unable to speak of their trauma. And before long, wary hospitality shifts to suspicion and fear, and the care of the men slides into appalling cruelty.
Lloyd Jones’s fable-like novel The Cage is a profound and unsettling novel about humanity and dignity and the ease with which we’re able to justify brutality.

The treatment of the strangers is puzzling in the way it hints at events and motivations — yet it seems to be uncomfortably familiar.  These two bedraggled men do not—cannot—respond to expectations, which soon morph into requirements.  And when those requirements are not met, the men are tricked into entering a cage and kept there in conditions too appalling for me to describe.

A group of townsmen form a committee to ‘manage’ the situation, and Sport, a young man living in his uncle’s hotel after the death of his parents, is assigned the role of ‘observer’. He nicknames the older man Doctor, and the young man Mole, recording everything these they do in his ledger.  At first the reader feels some hope that he represents some kind of humanity:

What have we learned so far?  This is the most persistent question the Trustees ask.
So far, I would say we have learned to overcome our revulsion and shame. (p.61)

But he is only too easily slides into blaming the strangers:

So much depends on patience.  The strangers are like cattle that dot the hillsides.  They are so still they could be mistaken for porcelain.  Few thoughts to share ever surface on their faces or leave their mouths.  If they truly care about us, they would make more of an effort. (p.67)

Sport visits the town zoo because it helps [him] understand life in the cage, and he recognises the suffering of a rhino in its pen:

And when I lock eyes with it I see that I am part of its problem—that I am implicated in its suffering. (p.68)

But out of sight means out of mind:

In their first days of captivity they rushed back and forth across the cage in panic.  Bashing themselves against the mesh.  The young one scraped his nose.  When he wiped it, the blood spread across his face, and we all thought, briefly and inescapably, thank God he’s inside the cage.  The blood and wild eyes and that crazy mane of hair.
In his charge across the cage, Doctor went more slowly, like an old-fashioned cab, holding up his hands to appeal their circumstances.  It became irritating to hear the same thing yelled up at our windows.
Then night removed them from view and we didn’t have to think about them until the next day. (p.73)

Sport does not entirely acquiesce in his role:

I put my pen down.  Some moments, I have decided (without wider consultation) deserve their privacy.
Besides, so far our awareness of their misery has not led to anything changing.  What is the point of sympathy that does not produce a change of circumstances?
(p. 88)

Yet he does not rebel:

Last night, sitting on the windowsill listening to Mole’s attempts to console Doctor, I began to sob.  I could not stop sobbing.  My eyes filled with tears until I could not see the rules lines on the ledger open on my knee.
Then a voice spoke in the dark.
Sport.  can you hear me?
It was Mole.
Sport, he said.  You are not like them.
I closed the window—ashamed to know I’d been heard. (p.93)

The sense of horror grows as one reads on, wanting something to change, yet fearing that, as in real life in our cold-hearted world, it will not…

*****

By coincidence, I read Daniel Finkelstein’s review this morning of Deborah Lipstadt’s new book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, and that triggered the thought that the way people in Germany learned to overcome their revulsion and shame over actions that morphed into the Holocaust is more universal than we like to admit.  Every day on the news we see and hear about terrible suffering but we have learned to adjust.  War, poverty, natural disasters, the misery of refugee camps (including our own on Manus and Nauru) mostly don’t attract more than fleeting attention.  Sure, some individuals and organisations take action, but most of us don’t.  Some of us might make a donation to an aid organisation, but most of us don’t adjust our consumption habits and we don’t harass our politicians into action on long-term solutions.

I wish they could be made to read The Cage.

For more about this book, visit Radio National, Alys on the Blog, and Booksellers NZ

 

The cover design, the genius of which you’ll discover as you read the book, is by W H Chong.

Author; Lloyd Jones
Title: The Cage
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 262 pages
ISBN: 9781925603224
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Sandringham, $29.99

 


Responses

  1. […] The Cage by Lloyd Jones (Penguin Random House), see my review […]

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  2. I enjoyed Hand Me Down World, your recommendation, but am not so sure about this one: sounds a bit bleak. And there’s quite a backlog of unread books piling up…It’s registered, though, so who knows

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    • Yes, it is bleak, but very important…

      Like

  3. Oh wow! on a similar topic, I’m so much enjoying (finally) HHhH by Binet. Listening to it in French. So so good, in form and content

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    • Oh, how I wish my French were good enough to listen to HHhH too, I can just imagine it! Looking forward to your review:)

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  4. This sound excellent and, unfortunately, timely, Lisa.

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