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The Lizard Cage

November 13, 2006
Karen Connelly/Doubleday/Talese

Connelly won the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction with Dream of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand, and her debut novel revisits Southeast Asia to soulful effect. Imprisoned in a mid-90’s Rangoon gulag, dissident singer/songwriter Teza stalks and eats the acrobatic lizards that venture across his cell’s ceiling at sundown. Senior jailer Nyunt Wai Oo angles for a promotion by scheming to plant contraband writing materials inside the celebrated Teza’s cage.

This plot backfires when Teza inadvertently passes the proscribed ballpoint to the illiterate, resourceful serving boy, Nyi Lay, who hoards the pen for dear life. As the entire prison is shaken down and Teza and Nyi Lay are tortured nearly to death, a bond of brotherhood develops between [them]. The gangster inmate on the ward, Tan-See Tiger, who oversees an in-house smuggling operation, completes the triangle: he and Teza realize that the only measure of liberation left to them lies in making sure Nyi Lay leaves the pirson camp alive. A brutal exposé with harrowing descriptions of prison life and heavily spiritual overtones, Connelly’s novel combines a thrillerlike pace with finely etched portraits that show how each character takes control of his own freedom.