Paper Cage by Tom Baragwanath (Text Publishing, 2022), 320pp, $38
I first read the Paper Cage in manuscript form when judging the 2022 NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize, for which it was shortlisted. It went on to win the Michael Gifkins Text Prize for an Unpublished Novel and Tom Baragwanath received a generous advance and publication by Australian company Text Publishing. So, it’s a crime novel that’s had a fine start to life.
The best crime fiction will go beyond the whodunnit formula to explore social issues or make us question prevailing attitudes. Baragwanath’s debut novel is largely a story of ‘us and them’ played out in a provincial New Zealand setting that has a definite ring of verisimilitude.
An older friend of mine commented the other day that in our own provincial town, there seems to be very little meeting ground between Māori and Pākehā—unless it’s on the sports field. As with any generalisation, it’s not that clear-cut, though perhaps there is an element of truth.
In Paper Cage, Māori are mainly of the gang world, while Pākehā are mainly police: it’s not about the ‘ordinary’ people that one usually meets (on the sports field), but a darker segment of society. Nevertheless, there are clear divisions.
The novel opens with a familiar New Zealand setting—a stormy night, gang members and drugs in small-town Masterton (yes, a novel set in Masterton!). A child has gone missing: Precious Kīngi. Small details reveal the family’s socio-economic situation; for instance, the mother has no photo of Precious to give the police.
Lorraine Henry, who works as a records clerk for the police, lives in the same part of town as the Kīngi family. In a moment that feels symbolic, she sees a group of kids hunting eels in the running gutters. It’s a scene that is both menacing and telling, setting the tone for what is to come. A ‘tall flat-cheeked girl’ spears an eel with a garden fork. ‘The other kids all whoop and slap at each other as she holds the eel high, a long-limbed Neptune with her fishy mascot.’ These aren’t cushioned city kids.
It’s also the night that Hēmi Larkin goes missing.
Lorraine knows the town intimately:
The corner dairies with three-for-two bread and Coke on dole day, and the car yards with hopeful colours pimpled across the windscreens.
Though she is undervalued at the station, especially by Ambrose (Pākehā, racist), the blow-in cop from Wellington, Justin Hayes, gets her into the briefing meeting about the missing kids to tap into Lorraine’s local knowledge.
An older woman with a dodgy hip, Lorraine’s routine revolves around work, drinking gin with her neighbour Patty, and looking out for her part-Māori niece Sheena, whom Lorraine raised after Sheena’s parents were killed in a shearing van accident. Sheena and her gang partner Keith have a child called Bradley, whom Lorraine dotes on. Lorraine has been there for Sheena through the drugs and the harder times with Keith. Yet when things start to go awry and kids go missing in Masterton, she is pushed to the outer.
Another telling scene is at Sheena’s house on the night of Bradley’s eighth birthday party. The ‘usual guys’ are outside drinking, the kids are playing pass the parcel, while the mums with their ‘blank stares’ eye Lorraine—‘us and them’—who has a kitten for Bradley and rent money for Sheena. Lorraine unwittingly finds drugs in Sheena’s room. When she confronts her niece, the scene turns menacing as gang member Moko watches from the doorway.
It’s not giving too much away to say that it’s also the night Bradley goes missing. ‘He could’ve just snuck outside with the eel girl, the night warm with childhood larking, so many darkened lawns waiting for play.’ Yet that hasn’t happened.
Lorraine, with her insider knowledge, along with Justin Hayes, is instrumental in helping to search for the missing children. Hers is an empathetic depiction of an older woman, plucky and brave, who would do anything for her family, even when they chuck that love back in her face.
Meanwhile, ever-present neighbour Patty looks out for Lorraine because somebody has to. As Detective Hayes tells Lorraine: ‘They’re taking from you, taking all the time.’ However, things don’t quite square with Patty, and there’s a hint of the stalker in her solicitude. When Patty and Lorraine attend a tangi, Patty may be supportive, but she is also uncomfortable in this setting. While Lorraine recalls the brusque sterility of her sister’s Pākehā funeral, she is also made aware of her outsider status: ‘A thorn in a paw, a seed in an eye.’ Moko spells it out: ‘This isn’t a place for you.’
And yet, despite his prickliness, Moko reveals his softer side after the tangi when they take Sheena home and he helps Lorraine into the house. ‘Sliding his sunglasses off and into his shirt, he lets me see the feeling in his eyes. For Keith, and for Sheena.’
Keith, Moko and others are running a drug operation that seems to link the missing kids: ‘the strange web of gang connections enmeshing the families’ and ‘the threat of violence hangs over the streets like the low hum of electricity’. Drugs run through the novel—in terms of plot and theme—and Sheena sends the cops on a wild goose chase with tragic consequences. Though that isn’t the real story, more like the background colour.
It’s the kids that matter.
The novel raises the question of whether Māori children are better off with their own dysfunctional families—the ‘dropkick’ dads and the mothers ‘dead behind the eyes’, or whether they should be ‘saved’—in Pākehā terms:
Us and them. Aunty or no, it’s still the same. Our kids might be missing, the answer just one locked door away, but these are lines that won’t be redrawn.
Lorraine, straddling the line between two cultures, turns out to be a heroic figure.
The Māori depictions in this novel are ones we are led to expect in our fiction: the tough gang members, the meth-addicted women, the bitter kuia standing up for their whanāu. Even though Baragwanath allows for some nuances and moments of grace, the stereotypes are still largely in place. How uncomfortable that may make one feel will depend on the reader. Paper Cage obviously sets out to depict the underbelly of small-town New Zealand but there seems to be no real place for Māori mana to shine through, unlike Michael Bennett’s recent crime novel Better the Blood, where mana and tribal strength meet obsession.
By the end, it is clear that no matter how troubled, it is whānau that ultimately matters, and the resolution hints at a reverse in the stereotypes to show that these kids have got a chance.
Paper Cage is an assured debut.
TINA SHAW is the author of publications for children, young adults and general readership. She is a manuscript assessor and editor of the NZSA quarterly publication NZ Author. Her novel, Ephemera, was published by Cloud Ink Press in 2019.