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March 23, 2007

The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

Like the books noted in the quotation below, Karen Connelly’s first novel The Lizard Cage is truly “full of the world.” Yet the story takes place in isolation from the world, within The Cage– a Burmese Prison where Teza (the Songbird) has been sentenced twenty years in solitary confinement for singing his protest songs. And it is Karen Connelly’s spectacular prose, empathy and descriptive eye which allow this story to contain the world. An award-winning writer of poetry and non-fiction, Connelly’s novel (new in paperback) incorporates her extraordinary use of language and her politics as she brings the plight of the Burmese people to life.

Much of this novel takes place within Teza’s cell, and after seven years in The Cage, he dreams of sky, of colour. He unwraps his cheroots so he can read the words printed on the scraps of the paper used to make the filters. Teza craves conversations, and thinks about his family, his girlfriend, and the life he had before. He meditates. He refuses to be broken. Teza sees the world as a poet sees it, as Karen Connelly must be able to see it in order to write it. Connelly’s descriptions find beauty in the most desolate places, rendering a cell a rich and vivid setting. And that Teza’s spirit cannot be harnessed threatens the authorities– at the prison, and in the wider world– but makes him an inspiration to those around him.

Much of Connelly’s writing has been concerned with her experiences in Asia, and she has plans to publish a non-fiction book about Burmese political prisoners (the most famous of whom is Aung San Suu Kyi). In The Lizard Cage as The Cage itself stands for Burma, Burma can stand for all countries in the world embroiled in civil war– the impossibility of the situation. Connelly displays an incredible empathy for all her characters, even those most atrocious. Which is not to say the bad guys don’t get their due (because she gives them their comeuppances marvelously) but as readers we are given an understanding of the “bad guys” too, which is essential. Multiple points of view are put to excellent use here. Connelly’s story is more complex than good and bad; of Teza and his prison guard it is acknowledged that “They are both caught and struggling”.

Connelly is writing about an intensely complicated situation with no easy solutions. In her acknowledgements she writes, “Someday the government of Burma will change…” and this simple hope can seem futile against reality. In the novel, this hope is symbolized by the character of the boy Nyi Lay (who is the subject of the post below). Connelly is not naive; her plot is often representative of actual injustice, but that Nyi Lay persists and triumphs seems to override all other hopelessness. Much as Teza could find the things of beauty within his solitary cell, so too do we seize the beauty and the hope Connelly so marvelously expresses against the brutality and corruption of capital-R Reality.

This novel is such a stunning achievement of fiction on its very own that we need not dwell on the feat Karen Connelly (a Canadian, and obviously a woman) achieves in inhabiting the character of a Burmese male political prisoner. Remarkable, no doubt, but her achievement is remarkable even without the backstory, and her truest achievement is creating a novel so truly beautiful out of some of the ugliest stuff the world has on offer.

If I had to say it in one word, I’d choose “exquisite”. This novel is one of my first Picks of the Year.

2 thoughts on “The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly”

  1. Literalicious says:

    This one’s been on my TBR list for a while now. Thanks to your review, it’s moving up on the list! 🙂

  2. Kerry says:

    Well then I’ve done something right! The world should know this book better and I hope you like it.

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