Book Review: The Cage, by Lloyd Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_cageYou can always rely on Lloyd Jones to come up with something new. He never writes about the same thing and he rarely, in my opinion, writes in the same way (although he might argue with that).

The idea for this latest novel was brought together during a visit to Germany where his daughter was working with refugees, while he was a resident in the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin programme in 2016-2017.

The Cage is a horrific work. Two strangers arrive in a small NZ town, unable or unwilling to provide information on how they got there. The hotel owner takes them in initially, but a series of events culminates in their living outdoors in a cage. The prototype for the cage was the strangers’ own creation but the reality of its growth was brought about by the actions of the hotelier, his family, his staff and the townspeople.

The strangers effectively become prisoners. The narrator is responsible for recording their activities and reporting to the Trust which has been set up to keep them contained until they are told the whole story. The cage has a key, but it’s apparently missing so the strangers can’t be released. And then, no-one wants to release them until they know their history. Paranoia about the unknown is ever-present, and horribly well drawn by Lloyd Jones – so much so that it’s almost possible to think that you, the reader, can understand why the locals behave as they do. I say almost, deliberately, as I found myself ranting at the narrator to do the right thing – get a pair of tinsnips and cut the damn cage open just for starters.

At one point, quite far along in the story and I won’t give any spoilers about why, the narrator asks ‘What is the question? The question is this. At what point did I know what was going to happen?The second question. Why did I not do anything to prevent it?’

From very early in this novel, I was reminded of the work by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Though possibly that’s because the hotel cook is called Viktor, so maybe this is not coincidental at all, nor as insightful as I first thought it might be.

But that’s what comes through: how easy it is to ignore the bad or evil things around us; how easy to pretend that something essentially bad can be construed as being “for their own good”; how hard it is to stand up against what we know, deep inside us, is wrong.

This novel is a modern fable, allegory, call it what you will. It’s certainly a hard read, but it throws up age-old questions about trust, responsibility, speaking up, justice and injustice, and above all taking action when you can.

Steel yourself, and read it.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Cage 
by Lloyd Jones
Published by  Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143772323

Sarah Forster reviewed an event featuring Lloyd Jones at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Festival – check it out here. 


NZF Writers & Readers Festival: Lloyd Jones – The Cage

Lloyd Jones was chaired by Charlotte Wood. You can see her on Saturday 10, 2.45pm.

lloyd jones the cageCharlotte Wood comes from the point of view of a fellow writer, but also a fan. She sees Lloyd as a ‘thrillingly unconventional writer,’ having met him several years ago while he was a Writer in Residence in Adelaide.

The session began with rather a lengthy explanation of the book, which I have read, perhaps unfortunately for the sake of this session. The protagonist of the novel is Sport – and the subject is the strangers, that are kept in a cage in the backyard of the hotel Sport’s uncle owns. He is employed, somewhat, as an observer, and a reporter.

Charlotte noted that the subject of refugees can be difficult to talk about without feeling as though you are hammering people with a moral truth. Lloyd made this what he refers to as a ‘fable’ – but on looking this up, he realised it didn’t go by the real meaning, but as the meaning in the sense Kafka uses it. This is the first time, but not the last time he refers to Metamorphosis as a tone of what he was trying to achieve with the book. From my understanding of this, it is the lack of setting, lack of explanation that makes it like Kafka. ‘It is matter of fact, detached’, he says.

He realised he was going this way as soon as he had the concept. This was inspired by several things in his life, including the experience in 2015 of Keleti Station – here’s a Stuff article that talks about this.

‘As we took escalators up to the concourse, there was a smell. In the west, we’ve forgotten what we smell like – these people had been retained in the station for several days before we arrived. There were boxes they had flattened sleep on, and the noise was tremendous. They were on their way to Germany, but Hungarian authorities wouldn’t let them board the trains. The Hungarian President was making a point against what Merkel suggested. We abandoned the idea of a holiday & spent the next 5 days doing what we could in the station.’

Lloyd believes Wellingtonians would take these people in (where Hungarians wouldn’t / couldn’t), and that this is due to our political condition making one set of behaviour more available to us than another. I’m not so sure.

This links into something they talked on later, the fact we have a real problem as a society with people who are vulnerable. Lloyd thinks perhaps we feel ashamed – he speaks of watching atrocities on the computer, women being stoned, men blown up. We feel complicit. It is this he’s trying to express.

Another strand of the book is that in his downtime, Sport takes his cousin to the zoo. Lloyd visited Berlin Zoo frequently while on a Residency there. During this residency his daughter was working at a refugee camp, and found a sign on the fence saying ‘we are not zoo animals.’ This drew his mind back to  Kaleti – where arguably, they were. In the book Sport watches the men for his job, then goes to the zoo, which Lloyd notes are the first place to we first learn we are allowed to stare with impugnity.

In the book, language is powerful – but not powerful enough. The strangers can’t explain what happened to them. ‘It is beyond language.’ The reaction to this is at first one of wonder, then irritation. Lloyd notes, ‘As soon as the perception shifts to ‘other’, you will do things to them that you would never do to one of your own.’ Charlotte observes that the language that the ‘trustees’ who look after the men use, is used to absolve themselves of responsibility, and Lloyd agrees, saying that he enjoyed writing this bit. Meanwhile, Sport’s language is dispassionate – he is making the reader complicit to what is happening – he writes as though a pure eye for most of the book.

There was a sense to me in this session that Lloyd was endeavouring to review his own book, and Charlotte was happy to help him do this. He was putting right any misconceptions throughout the session.

Charlotte starts talking about the wire in the book: the men are given wire to create something – if it is beyond language, perhaps it isn’t beyond sculpture. When it means nothing to them, the townspeople work together to create a larger version – then there’s a slip, and the men end up inside the cage. With the door locked. This is the type of slip that happens frequently.

Charlotte doesn’t think you could do this book as realism. But there are points of connection, says Lloyd. For him, it’s dwelling on the observation of others – what it is to observe others. He is constraining his writing to this, these are the limits of the book. Charlotte sees this too and sympathises – reviewers often criticise her deliberate limitations of her fictional worlds – similarly with Lloyd.

They then discuss that the thing with Lloyd’s book is that it isn’t completely invented – they’ve talked already about its real-world influences, and in Australia there are men in cages, literally. He states, ‘The book isn’t a conversation – the allegory is off to one side, but it is there.’

Something I have seen reviews online and that I wish they’d gone further into is the fact that Sport is also a refugee from trauma – he is an outsider, and was a stranger to the town, until these men came around. He recognises where the strangers have come from, but Lloyd says, ‘his job isn’t to be sophisticated’.

Lloyd notes, with Charlotte’s suggestion, ‘Often I get a bit caught up in trying to reject the conventions of narrative.’ He initially tried to write this book from the point of view of the strangers. He realised he couldn’t, because they knew too much. The narrative strategy usually involves forward movement, but the observation was what drove this:  ‘I saw this, this is how you described it to me, this is how it’s being described.’

Charlotte and Lloyd then had a final discussion of voice – the idea that when you pick up a book you’re not reading with a sense of is this interesting because of what’s being described? Lloyd says his initial thought is now ‘Is it a voice I trust?’

He notes he used to write flamboyantly, and only understood the persuasiveness of voice later on. He says, ‘The task is to find that voice that I believe in that’s interesting to me as a writer, but that will also release more than me.’ Wood notes, ‘It’s the voice that lets you be surprised’. He then notes the only secret is to write a lot of sentences until he finds it!

As long as Lloyd knows he can rely on this happening for him, time after time, we’ll certainly hear more from him.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Cage: Lloyd Jones
with Lloyd Jones and Charlotte Wood
Writers & Readers Festival, Friday, 9 March