One day, two strangers arrive in an unknown town. Exhausted and bedraggled, they have clearly experienced a major trauma, but they can’t express what they’ve been through to the townsfolk. And so the townsfolk get nervous. At first inviting the penniless strangers to stay in a hotel, the reception gets ever colder, until the room is exchanged for a cage in the hotel’s backyard. That’s just the beginning…
The Cage could have been a fantastic short story, or even a novella. It has all the ingredients necessary: big ideas concisely portrayed, metaphorical subtext, and a willingness to shock. It had the potential to be something short and searing; The Lottery of the twenty-first century. Lloyd Jones, however, has insisted on making his story into a full-length novel.
That makes reading the book a strange experience; it feels both sparse and padded. We don’t know where this story takes place, and few characters are even gifted a first name. Meanwhile our narrator is granted an extensive backstory. There are chapters dedicated to his past, and his own arrival at the hotel, and none of it matters. It all appears to be a desperate attempt to bulk the book up to the size of a novel.
The narrator takes frequent visits to the zoo, along with his niece. He spends all his time there comparing the caged animals to the caged humans. There are pagesof this. Much of the allegorical content of The Cage works well, but these sections are a little ridiculous; making subtext into text in such an obvious, condescending way.
Beneath all this unnecessary stuffing though, is a timely tale. The strangers, after all, are refugees. They arrive in a strange place with no possessions, nothing to call their own. They’ve experienced something more terrible than most in the western world could ever imagine. They need help, and instead they are treated with suspicion. Sound familiar? Some may accuse the treatment they receive as unrealistically cruel, but look at what’s happening in America right now, with Trump’s family separation policy. In a world where cruelty to refugees is getting worse by the week, the novel looks eerily prescient.
More than anything, The Cage is about what it’s like to be a witness to the suffering of ‘the other’ – human beings from an entirely different milieu to our own. It’s about sharing the planet with people who have gone through something unimaginable to us, and the responsibility we have to help. It’s about extending empathy and compassion further than our own backyard; recognising our common humanity. For that, at least, it’s commendable.
Because The Cage is a short story in novel’s clothing, it never quite comes together. The world and the characters don’t have the definition you’d expect from a novel. Yet the dead weight passages -the flashbacks and the zoo visits – rob the story of the power it would have had as a novella.
Despite the unnecessary baggage, there’s a potency to The Cage which makes it hard to shake. It just could have been so much better.
The Cage is published by Text Publishing Company on 30 August 2018