TOM BARAGWANATH Paper Cage. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
A finalist in the Ngaio Awards for Best First Crime Novel, Paper Cage is the story of a divided community and a string of missing children.
There’s not much that happens in Masterton that Lo Henry doesn’t know about. One of two Pākehā sisters who married into Māori families, Lo lives with a dicky hip, her memories of husband Frank, a cop who died from misadventure on the job, and her job as a file clerk at the local police station.
Lorraine Henry, known to many as Lo, is very good at her job. She remembers the things written down on the piles of paper that pass before her every day, and she can make connections, skills that mean the local cops are partially in awe of Lo, and mostly very wary of her.
Where things really get interesting is the appended files on the Kīngis and the Larkins, and the strange web of gang connections enmeshing the families. There are transcripts of the follow-up interviews Hayes and Ambrose held with Queenie Larkin and Cath Kīngi, and damn near every sentence makes me want to run to the file-room stacks. I’m reading one coincidence after another, feeling more and more like a bird dog pointing into sagebrush.
After five pages of nothing but terse responses to Ambrose and Hayes, Queenie mentions something about Hēmi enrolling in the last Marist Rugby Club training weekend over on Dixon Street. My mind jumps to the second shelf from the back, the bottom row. It was one of Dion’s files, full of his usual spelling mistakes, about a minor dust-up between Jason Larkin and a patched guy at scrummaging practice. Nothing too major: a chipped tooth, a sprained wrist and no charges.
Nothing definitive, but it helps paint the picture.
Lo and Frank never had kids, but she has her niece Sheena and Sheena’s son Bradley. Sheena is the daughter of Lo’s sister, and when her parents died in an accident, Lo took her in and raised her. She still looks out for her, sneaking Sheena and Bradley rent money when she can, despite Bradley’s dad Keith being in the picture. She’s close to both of them, and as soon as a child goes missing in town, she’s worried. But when a second, and then third kid also disappear, everyone’s worried.
Three now. Lord help us. Two could be a coincidence but three is too much to ignore, even here.
They live in a low-income suburban community with hard workers and dodgy types side by side, and some questionable accommodation options on offer (Garage to rent, $285 / month, family of four max). The Mongrel Mob are very visible (Bradley’s dad, Keith, is a big man in that gang), although there are pockets of calm. Lo has struck up a close friendship with Patty, her newly arrived neighbour, and they often share a meal, a gin or three and a night in front of the telly. The atmosphere of the neighbourhood can be summed up as:
Some might call it peace, but that’s not it. It’s more like something lying in wait
When Justin Hayes arrives from Wellington as lead investigator on the missing kids team, he quickly realises that Lo’s the person who can answer a lot of the questions he has about this community, the players in it, and the connections between everyone. His request to have a file clerk sit in on the taskforce briefings does, however, cause consternation for local police chief Ambrose, particularly as Lo’s connections to the community have always been regarded as suspect by members of the local force:
Hayes turns to the chief. ‘Your records clerk needs to be in on all briefings.’
‘Records clerk? You mean her?’ Ambrose jabs a thumb at me. ‘There’s really no need. The boys have the papers.’
‘I’ll have to insist.’ The detective holds his eye. ‘She’s given me more on the spot than your whole team managed in a half-hour briefing.’
The colour drops out of the chief ’s face.
Lo’s an outsider on both sides though, with her own community regarding her Pākehā origins and job with the cops as cause for suspicion. In the middle of all of this tension, the third child goes missing, and the local cops are all too quick to put it down to the family’s connections to the local gangs. With conclusions being drawn firmly along the ‘us and them’ lines that infect this world, it’s up to the two outsiders to negotiate a way around the obstacles and stop more kids from vanishing.
Cleverly paced, putting Lo and her world at the centre of the action, Paper Cage is a character-driven crime novel with a visceral sense of place and community and a solid plot. Author Baragwanath has incorporated institutional racism, prejudice, social deprivation, and good people just trying to get ahead into a storyline that’s very engaging, without papering over the obvious cracks in the world he is describing.
‘The mother was on the news, the poor thing. How they get themselves into these situations, I just don’t know.’
They. Other times I’d be liable to pull her up on this talk back radio stuff, these creeping sanctimonies about poor life choices and level playing fields. This morning’s no time for that.
Lo stands out for many reasons. Staunch in the face of loss and heartache, possessed of a dry sense of humour, she’s crazy-brave when she needs to be and totally vulnerable when she doesn’t. She’s also very clear-eyed about the world around her, the injustices as well as the good. Then there’s her friendship with Patty.
In the lounge, I stare at our two spots, once mine and Frank’s, now mine and Patty’s. This is what I have now. A sad empire and a niece I don’t know what to do with. I sit and watch my reflection in the television’s black surface, a single figure held in the slanted light from the hallway. It’s warm here in the dark. Warm and still.
Readers might be forgiven for expecting the worst – we’re conditioned to do that when a story involves missing kids, and there are some aspects to the resolution of this tale that are hard to swallow, but not in ways you might expect. Not everyone gets out of this unscathed, and the motivations for some people’s actions are as close to unfathomable as sane people might imagine.
Tom Baragwanath Paper Cage Text Publishing 2022 PB 320pp $32.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.
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