Jones' latest novel has a heart of darkness

New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones. Photo: ODT files
New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones. Photo: ODT files

Jessie Neilson review the latest work from Lloyd Jones, The Cage. Published by Penguin Random House.

In conversation with Finlay Macdonald in 2010 (in Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion), Lloyd Jones speaks of his pressure when writing a new work to "unearth something ... special and particular'' to himself which has its own kind of truth. The seeds of the story will be real, yet he will be working with a type of "jigsaw lurking in the subconscious'' which needs to be brought into the light and fitted into a digestible shape.

Jones is known for his mastery of form and his unpredictable array of settings and story lines. Perhaps his most well-known work is Mister Pip, adapted for the screen, and he has received numerous honours for this and others such as Biografi and Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance.

In selecting a narrative voice that is most persuasive, Jones states he often opts for the first person, and this he does in The Cage. Our narrator is an employee at a modest rural hotel. The setting could be anywhere, so lacking is it in specific features, and feeling almost post-apocalyptic. One of the few references which pinpoint it as New Zealand is a school group singing Pokarekare Ana. Apart from this, the landscape is devoid of markers, bar those made by seasonal change in a country locale.

The narrator is a quietly-spoken, thoughtful observer. Tasked with looking after two aimless strangers, he must also record their daily interactions for the Trustees self-appointed to look after their welfare. Coming upon this hotel seemingly out of nowhere, the two men will not divulge their names nor anything about their past. They have no money nor means. This forms a dilemma for their guardians who are alarmed at their reticence, which they believe stems out of an event too painful to talk about. All they know is that the two men repeatedly ask if the woman from the agency has turned up yet, holding out faith that all will then be repaired.

The younger one has a long, hopeful stride and shows extroversion and mischievousness. The elder is exceedingly well-spoken and restrained; even contrived. Yet they appear to the others like two scarecrows, or refugees in a "firestorm of other people's lives''. They are both recognisable as fellow humans, yet alien through their displacement and unknown identity.

Before long the strangers' lack of communication has become a huge problem for the others, and bit by bit they are distanced both physically and spiritually. Frustrated by not knowing their names, the hotel occupants name them "Doctor'' and "Mole'' based on distinctive personality traits.

Peculiar circumstance and a desire to quarantine mean "the strangers'' are soon holed up in a type of cage. This becomes a metaphor for the existential "conundrum'' in which all of the town is immersed. At first the cage proves a novelty for hotel stayers and the narrator, as he documents their gestures and psychological states. However, incrementally, they slip from the human and familiar into the animal and beyond; dehumanised and objectified.

The narrator is bothered by this, and plays the clarinet to them as their moods darken. He feeds them egg through a hole in the cage, and their mouths come up for the spoon-fed morsels, like dependent babies or injured zoo animals. The asymmetry in relations does not pass the narrator by, and he feels both repelled and compelled. Feeding by spoon becomes an act of tenderness. Meeting the other's eye and not turning away means he is locked in their suffering, complicit, and witness. He realises the cage holds faces and eyes like his, "skin and bundle of fears and anxieties'' just like his own.

Without access to proper toileting or cleaning facilities their cage soon takes on a "slept-in, faecal air'', becoming a sun-baked and rain-splattered cesspit. There is no privacy and even defecation is in public view. Sometimes Doctor is less despondent, allowing humour, and resurrecting his dignity. Though there is a "no photos'' rule for visitors, who gape at the two as if specimens in a zoo, Doctor will sometimes pose obligingly, sitting with straight back and neck to suggest a 17th-century Venetian nobleman.

Our narrator continues to watch and record, although soon what he sees are two creatures who count on their fingers the days they have spent in the cage, gazing up at the window in perplexity at rejection. The Trustees claim the strangers are "temporarily caged'', alarmed by the term "incarceration''.

Lloyd Jones, in The Cage, has dug up something raw and painful, unearthing the extent of degradation that can be inflicted by one person on another, even without initial ill intent. The only weapons of protection the strangers have are their eyes, to bore into those holding them captive, and silence. This jigsaw Jones has matted together from deep within has opened up into a place that is shameful and disturbing, with an inner darkness that is all too real.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

Win a copy

The Weekend Mix has three copies of The Cage, by Lloyd Jones, courtesy of Penguin Random House, to give away. For your chance to win a copy, email playtime@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘The Cage’’ in the subject line, by Tuesday, March 20.

WINNERS
Winners of the draw for copies of Peach, by Emma Glass, courtesy of Bloomsbury, were: Arna Verboeket, of Bannockburn, Jos McLean, of Wanaka, and Marjorie Brown, of Dunedin.

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