Two men, fleeing for their lives, arrive in a small country town. The townspeople, desperate to know where they have come from and what they have seen, assign a group of Trustees to find out more. But as the men prove unable to speak of their trauma, the town’s early hospitality is slowly withdrawn, replaced with suspicion, fear, and appalling cruelties. Confined to a cage in the grounds of the local hotel, the key presumed missing, the strangers cling to the last vestiges of what makes them human, as the Trustees fight harder and harder to wring answers from them.
The Cage‘s observant lead is the hotel owner’s nephew, assigned to watch over the strangers and note down their behaviour and habits. He draws – somewhat obvious – parallels with the local zoo, where humans come to watch and animals adapt to being watched. It’s a place he finds he more and more distasteful as his interactions with the strangers continues. His observations of Doctor and Mole, as he names them, move between the touching and hopeful to the downright stomach churning, as the men are paraded for paying visitors, fed through a tiny hole in the cage, and eventually walled in and separated from the world.
Intentional or not, I found it difficult to read The Cage without thinking about the current political climate surrounding refugees. There’s a clear parallel here between the fictional strangers and those fleeing unspeakable horrors and finding only suspicion and scrutiny, rather than compassion, safety, and much needed time to process things. The inability to grant the strangers any kind of citizenship, their terrible living conditions, the climate of distrust, the fear of the unknown – it feels all too relevant as countries struggle with real life refugee crises.
The Cage does not make for easy reading. This is, of course, due in part to the appalling treatment of the strangers, but also because we never see the villains, such as they are, punished. As readers, we know and understand what is happening is strange and wrong, but there’s no realisation of that from the Trustees. The eventual release of the strangers comes not from their acceptance that what happens is wrong, but because these men have simply shifted their attention elsewhere and the strangers have become less important to them. It’s hard to stomach, a bleak tale of mistreatment that sees no real comeuppance for the instigators. But, I suppose, that’s a little like life right?
Lloyd Jones’ The Cage is as unsettling as it is unsatisfying. Leaving you with as many questions as it opened with, it’s a frustrating examination of the lengths people will go to for the truth, and of the importance of the small dignities and expected comforts that make us feel human.
The Cage is available now through Text Publishing