Review: Paper Cage

Reviewed by Greg Fleming

Author: Tom Baragwanath. Reviewer: Greg Fleming.An acutely observed portrait of a community, Paper Cage is the prize-winning debut from young New Zealand novelist Tom Baragwanath.August 2022 release

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Author:Tom Baragwanath

Publisher:Text Publishing


Date Published:30 August 2022




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Despite penning this in Paris, where he now lives with his wife, Tom Baragwanath sets his debut novel in Masterton – a town where “half the families… have some sort of [gang] connection, and the threat of violence hangs over the streets like the low hum of electricity.”

Paper Cage was awarded the Michael Gifkin’s award of $10,000 last year and is another stellar debut – this year in crime fiction we’ve had excellent novels by Simon Lendrum, David Burt and Michael Bennett.

Baragwanath’s unlikely heroine, Lorraine, lives alone with her cat and works in the office at the local police station; some decades ago, she married into a local Māori family. She’s now a widow – her husband, an ex-policeman was shot in a freak accident – but she has recently been befriended by a new next-door neighbour, the ever-obliging Patty. Indeed, the two have become so close, bonding over gins and domestic tasks, that some in the community are speculating that there is more here than a simple friendship.

In the opening pages we see Lorraine battling the summer rain to deliver a rent payment to help her wayward niece who has had drug problems in the past and is involved with a notorious gang member. Masterton has been rocked by the disappearance of a young Māori girl a few weeks earlier. To make matters worse Lorraine senses her niece is using again when she smells the familiar scent of methamphetamine - a “musty waft between burnt sugar and vinegar” as she enters her home. When two other children go missing the gangs are the first people police look to. The case hits close to home when Lorraine’s great nephew is one of the children who goes missing.

There are echoes of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors and even a touch of Maurice Gee, especially in Baragwanath’s literary touches - headlights “shine into the rain like buttery swords,” kittens are “furry commas” and in his recurrent eel imagery. While these flourishes work at times, they do risk snapping the reader out of Lorraine’s compelling first-person narrative.

Baragwanath clearly knows the Wairarapa intimately (he hails from nearby Wainuioru) and the novel has a superb sense of place. From the evening rush at the local roast shop to the description of a gentrified Martinborough where “the only hardship facing the drinkers in the Martinborough Hotel is deciding which pinot will most impress the city colleagues,” Baragwanath shines when revealing the rivalries and hidden tensions in a small community.

But race is the issue Baragwanath drills down into here, the novel taking an unexpected turn in its latter stages. Although Lorraine is Pākehā, she is subject to racist chatter in her workplace – her colleagues jibing her because of her family links to the Māori community. She’s smart, gritty and determined, and will do anything in her power to save her niece from the drugs and the gang lifestyle and help find the missing children - but she’s also not above making assumptions of her own.

It’s a tightly written, slow burning thriller that relies less on action (though a car chase through one-way forestry tracks is a memorable exception) than a gradual revealing of character and community.

Baragwanath reveals a tight-knit community alive with prejudice, where patronising attitudes towards race bubble just below the surface.

It’s a fine debut but one that, in places, seems hemmed in by its chosen genre. For me, the first half worked a lot better than the second which seemed in a hurry to wrap things up and adhere to certain crime fiction tropes. That said, one senses there’s much more to come from Baragwanath. He’s a fascinating talent and one to watch.

Reviewed by Greg Fleming

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