4 stars “In itself the wind is hard to hear. It has to occupy other things. It needs a split gable to rush through. Clapboard or loose windows to play and slap against. Clouds to push about. Without these, the wind is just a bully that we have heard of.”
The Cage is the sixth adult novel by New Zealand author, Lloyd Jones. Two strangers turn up in town. They seem to be survivors of some unknown catastrophe, but are unable to speak of it, unable to say where they're from, who they are. The townsfolk are sympathetic and they are given a room in the town's hotel, but their application for residency cannot be considered without the necessary details.
Within days they find themselves in a sort of cage in the hotel's yard, a cage of fencing wire for which the key is apparently missing. They are spoon-fed through a hole, sleep on the ground and have to defaecate in the dirt. A committee is formed to deal with the problem: these community minded citizens of the town call themselves the Trustees. Our narrator observes the Strangers and reports back to the Trustees, taking the minutes of their meetings and enacting decisions made.
And still they are in the cage. They do have a spade to bury their faeces, a log to sit on, the use of a hose (sometimes), blankets and towels, for all of which they are expected to be grateful. Visitors and townsfolk come to look at them, to observe the spectacle of the Strangers, their daily habits, to remark on the stink of their faeces, to watch what they do. They feed them with nuts packaged especially for the purpose and sold in the grocer’s shop, just like the animals in the zoo across the road from the hotel. Still the Strangers do not talk about what happened to them.
The Trustees consider reasonable requests from the Strangers (raspberry jam, a bed, a bath, pen and paper) but spend time justifying the reasons they cannot be granted. They resolve to act on minor, insignificant matters while ignoring actual welfare (the Strangers no proper shelter from weather). They make assumptions about the behaviour of the Strangers, about what they might need or want, and spend money on things that are neither useful nor needed by the Strangers: a memorial wall.
Eventually, it is deemed that a plate warmer, no longer used in the hotel, be placed in the cage (the nights are getting colder), powered at the discretion of the narrator, but officially two hours each morning and two hours each night. Our narrator acts in half-hearted advocacy for the Strangers, but finds himself torn between duty to the Trustees and the wants or needs of his charges.
Who said that evil prevails when good men do nothing? “I had intended to ask where the key had been found. But at the last second I couldn’t bear to. I knew he would tell a lie which, as soon as I heard it, would bind me to it and then I would inherit the deceit.” So, is it beginning to sound at all familiar? Or do we think “Couldn't happen in a civilised country!”
Jones gives the reader a compelling tale that calls us out on how we treat the homeless, the stateless, the displaced person; calls us to account for our reaction to survivors, refugees from disaster or catastrophe, our xenophobic mindset, our insistence on protocol, on red tape.
When we are taken to task for our lack of caring, for allowing their gross loss of dignity as we follow arbitrary rules without question, how we (or our elected representatives) set about blame shifting, relying on semantics, rationalising, justifying action/inaction. He wraps it all is some beautiful prose. This is a powerful read that will resonate with anyone despairing at their government’s treatment of refugees.