Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

Set during Burma's military dictatorship of the mid—1990s, Karen Connelly’s exquisitely written and harshly realistic debut novel is a hymn to human resilience and love.

In the sealed-off world of a vast Burmese prison known as the cage, Teza languishes in solitary confinement seven years into a twenty-year sentence. Arrested in 1988 for his involvement in mass protests, he is the nation’s most celebrated songwriter whose resonant words and powerful voice pose an ongoing threat to the state. Forced to catch lizards to supplement his meager rations, Teza finds emotional and spiritual sustenance through memories and Buddhist meditation. The tiniest creatures and things–a burrowing ant, a copper-coloured spider, a fragment of newspaper within a cheroot filter–help to connect him to life beyond the prison walls.

Even in isolation, Teza has a profound influence on the people around him. His integrity and humour inspire Chit Naing, the senior jailer, to find the courage to follow his conscience despite the serious risks involved, while Teza’s very existence challenges the brutal authority of the junior jailer, perversely nicknamed Handsome. Sein Yun, a gem smuggler and prison fixer, is his most steady human contact, who finds delight in taking advantage of Teza by cleverly tempting him into Handsome's web with the most dangerous contraband of all: pen and paper.

Lastly, there's Little Brother, an orphan raised in the jail, imprisoned by his own deprivation. Making his home in a tiny, corrugated-metal shack, Little Brother stays alive by killing rats and selling them to the inmates. As the political prisoner and the young boy forge a cautious friendship, we learn that both are prisoners of different orders; only one of them dreams of escape and only one of them achieves it.

Barely able to speak, losing the battle of the flesh but winning the battle of the spirit, Teza knows he has the power to transfigure one small life, and to send a message of hope and resistance out of the cage.

Paperback, 448 pages
First published September 27, 2005
by Vintage Canada
4.5/5 stars

I read this book as part of our Family Blessing Book Club.  This family book club consists of myself and 3 adult sons. We come with a wide variety of tastes in books, which makes it fun but also a little scary when reading something one wouldn't normally pick up.  Such is the case here with The Lizard Cage.

This book lead to many discussions not just about the story but the writing as well.  Told in parts by prisoner Teza and also Little Brother, aka Free EL Salvador because of his t shirt.

At times this was a hard book to read, one can only imagine the treatment in a Burmese jail, here the author vividly created scenes that I find difficult to forget.  While I didn't understand the political climate this book had us googling and researching the real life events, also the author notes tells of her sources just making this story all the more powerful.  It's an emotional story to read with its injustices and corruption within the jail walls. Amidst all this are a couple characters that made a difference, that made this story and the journey well worth the reading experience. 

The Lizard Cage is a well written, authentic novel that is deserving of the many awards it has won.  For a debut Karen Connelly has set the bar high herself. 

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