Wednesday, May 24, 2023

"An extraordinarily tense read": PAPER CAGE review

PAPER CAGE by Tom Baragwanath (Text Publishing, 2022)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Masterton isn’t a big town. The community’s tight, if not always harmonious. So when a child goes missing it’s a big deal for everyone. And when a second kid disappears, the whole town’s holding their own children that little bit tighter.

Lorraine doesn’t have kids, but she has a nephew. She’s holding him a bit tighter, too, because she works for the police, and she knows they don’t have any idea. Lo’s not a cop, she’s a records clerk. She sits out back among the piles of paper, making connections, remembering things. Working things out that the actual cops don’t want to hear about.

Until the new investigator, Hayes, arrives from Wellington, and realises Lo’s the only person there with answers to any of his questions. Which is just as well—because the clock is running down for the children of the town.

Lorraine Henry is living in Masterton with a dicky hip and the memories she shared with her husband Frank, a cop who died through misadventure on the job. She works as a file clerk at the local police station, and she sneaks rent money to her niece, Sheena. Lorraine and Sheena’s mum were Pākehā sisters who married into Māori families. Lorraine took Sheena in when her parents died in an accident, and Sheena and her son Bradley are now Lorraine’s only family.

The community Lorraine lives in is not flash, and when peaceful “Some might call it peace, but that’s not it. It’s more like something lying in wait”. Ads for rental accommodation are for garage space, “ family of four max”. The Mongrel Mob is a clear presence, and Bradley’s dad, Keith, is a big man in the gang. Lorraine has struck up an unexpected friendship with a recently arrived neighbour, Patty. She and Patty often share a meal, a gin or three, and some telly of an evening.

The current worrying case at the station is a missing child, a young girl. And when a second child goes missing, this time a young boy, a detective comes over from Wellington to help the local cops investigate. Lorraine is being kept well away from the centre of the investigation, her colleagues seeing her as aligned with the ‘bad’ community. There’s also a suggestion she’s only kept her job through pity for what happened to Frank. But Detective Hayes from over the hill, “Dressed like a stork that’s fallen through a wardrobe”, soon realises the asset Lorraine is, with her knowledge of the local police files alongside her ties in the community.

When a third child goes missing, and all three of the kids’ families have either direct or indirect gang connections, the local cops jump to conclusions. And the ‘us-and-them’ shutters fall into place, hindering the investigation. Lorraine and Hayes start working together, trying to negotiate a way forward. Lorraine is used to such negotiations, as well as being seen as suspect by her colleagues, she is also viewed as an outsider by the community, due both to her being Pākehā and her working for the cops.

Lorraine hangs between two worlds; she compares Tangi she has experienced to the quick modest funeral organised for her sister; she automatically notices when Patty first enters her house without taking off her shoes. She knows Hayes is using her to get information from the community, just as Moko, one of Keith’s gang members, wants her to use her influence with the police: “You just keep them on track”.

Lorraine is intent on finding the kids. And she knows Keith and his boys want that too, despite what the local cops are saying. She hates the meth culture that accompanies Keith and his cohort, including Sheena – and she would prefer that Keith keep away. But she also knows Keith as a gifted gardener, just as Frank had been. And she knows how gentle he can be with Bradley. As things unroll, she is taken aback by the kindnesses shown to her by Moko.

Lorraine and Hayes manage to get some leads, and despite the local station trying to keep her away from the investigation, she persists and ends up in the most awful situations. Paper Cage is an extraordinarily tense read, there is a nail-biting sequence at the end of a long forestry track, and a similarly harrowing sequence on a remote farm: “Anyway, hell doesn’t have to be a big place, or hot. No reason it couldn’t be a shed out past Martinborough”.

The novel starts and ends in rain and the reader is totally immersed in the environment, and in the lives of the characters. The plotting is great, with the reader finding out crucial information ahead of Lorraine, adding a further layer of poignancy to her situation. And Lorraine, Aunty Lo, is the real heart of the novel. She is staunch despite all the unkindness around her. She has suffered great loss, yet still lives for others.

Lorraine’s efforts to find the kids are unswerving, kids with “the absolute halo of joy holding them, their glee not yet checked by rules and preferences and us-and-them eyes”. Somehow Lorraine manages to keep her world from spinning apart – the pressure she is under is brilliantly shown in an outburst in a supermarket carpark. And the resolution of the mystery is extraordinary, the reader being as gob-smacked as Lorraine, “Sometimes we know so little”. A great #YeahNoir novel.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving former librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

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