Book review: Paper Cage by Tom Bardgwanath

Saturday, September 3, 2022 Permalink

Tom Baragwanath is a New Zealand-born writer living in Paris. I mentioned recently (in my review of the anthology, Dark Deeds Down Under) I don’t read a lot of NZ authors so wonder if that’s why I was occasionally a little lost here with some terminology.

It’s often the case when I read French, Italian or Nordic crime fiction as I really (really) don’t understand their law enforcement hierarchy but here – weirdly (given our proximity to our good friends across the ditch) I found myself confused by phrases and colloquialisms.

Embarrassingly when starting this book I assumed ‘patched’ meant that one of the characters had some sort of trendy beard-like growth on his chin. However I gather it means that person is / was ‘connected’ or a member of a gang.

Book review: Paper Cage by Tom BardgwanathPaper Cage
by Tom Baragwanath
Published by Text Publishing
on 30/08/2022
Source: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922458759
Pages: 304

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.

Ostensibly this is about the disappearance of several children, but in many ways it plays a backseat to simmering race relations, exacerbated by gang-related violence and a drug and alcohol-fuelled suburban culture much of which is led (here) by Keith – the partner of Lorraine’s niece Sheena and father of Lorraine’s beloved great-nephew, Bradley.

In fact the investigation gets derailed (and precious time lost) after the disappearance of Bradley, by Sheena wanting to protect Keith’s drug-dealing and I understood Lorraine’s frustration with her niece who put her partner (and his illegal activities) before her own son.

I was a little lost in some of the intricacies here. There are references to ‘them’ and ‘us’ and not always when discussing race. The book is set in Bardgwanath’s own hometown of Masterson, which I assumed to be a fairly small town in New Zealand. Lorraine doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere. I was unsure initially if she was Maori as her police colleagues treat her poorly and not only because she’s ‘just’ the records clerk and lives on the wrong side of town. However similarly she’s viewed as an outsider by Sheena’s friends and Keith.

I liked that visiting cop Hayes recognises that Lorraine has a lot to offer – in terms of her knowledge of the players and community and appreciates that insight… overruling Lorraine’s boss to have her involved.

I very much enjoyed Bardgwanath’s comfortable prose and ease of his storytelling. The kidnappings seemed to become a little diluted amongst the rubble here, but perhaps that’s what Baragwanath is going for – reflecting that police can’t focus on important issues within the community because of the swirling underbelly found in both large and small communities.

The issue of race and way we perceive or judge others underpins this novel. I could see that Baragwanath had a point he was trying to make but (ultimately) unsure the commentary comes full-circle and offers any resolution (which again however… probably reflects real-life!).

Paper Cage by Tom Baragwanath was published by Text Publishing and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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