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San Francisco Chronicle
April 1/07

The Lizard Cage

"Epic" is a word that will certainly be used to describe Karen Connelly's first novel, "The Lizard Cage." Well researched and supported by the author's numerous visits to Burma and her two-year residency on the Thai-Burma border, "The Lizard Cage" has the length, detail and expansiveness to let you immerse yourself in the living, breathing world of its characters.

The world the reader is plunged into for the first eight or so chapters (and some assorted ones after that), though, is about as lively as one might expect from solitary confinement. The year is 1995, and Teza is a young, unusually spirited man in solitary confinement in a Burmese prison, serving the seventh year of a 20-year term for singing his popular, poetic protest songs against the country's dictatorship. In these chapters the reader is trapped inside Teza's brain, forced to share in his reminiscences, musings about what the present might be like outside and painfully detailed reflections on life in solitary: "Chew, chew, chew. It's like gnawing the mat at the entrance to a noodle shop. There is food somewhere beyond it, on a higher plane. Now comes the inevitable swallow" or "The prisoner watches the s -- pail. The s -- pail watches him." The book's gears get moving a little faster when we are able to peer into other characters' lives.

And this change is fortunate, as there is actually a full, cohesive cast of characters in the novel. To name a few, there's the cruel junior jailer, nicknamed Handsome, who perpetrates upon others the violence he has carried around inside him for decades; the highly devious criminal prisoner Sein Yun, who, in an effort to reduce his sentence, carries out menial tasks like emptying out Teza's pail; Chit Naing, the conflicted senior jailer who is friends of sorts with Teza and whose conscience is eventually his undoing; and the novel's most important character after Teza, a 12-year-old often referred to as simply Nyi Lay, i.e. "little brother," who ended up in the prison after being orphaned and not knowing of anywhere better to go. After Teza is moved to a new cell after an extremely harsh beating, Nyi Lay is the one who brings him food every day. Surprised and intrigued by the sight of such a young boy in the prison, Teza develops a sort of cautious rapport with him.

Though Connelly pays fastidious attention to detail and presents some well-fleshed-out characters over the course of several hundred pages, she also has a weakness for the sappy. She frequently chooses for the final or almost-final sentence in a chapter a line that teeters a little too precariously on the border between poetic and maudlin: "The stink in the shower room is like the smell of his own shame," "The boy grows into his own life, sharp and choiceless as a thorn" and "The candle burns and burns, its flame reaching out, like each of them, like every one of us, for the invisible air."

Perhaps the most notable theme Connelly intermittently hits you over the head with, and also one prone to sappiness, is the significance of the written word. Sometimes this theme is touching: Nyi Lay is haunted by his illiteracy and desperately wants to be able to read. In private, he holds books up to his face, studying the words, trying to unlock the secret of the rows of squiggles. Other times it gets too heavy-handed, as when Teza muses, "Who can tell what a single word, the right one, might do?" or "As long as there is paper, people will write, secretly, in small rooms, in the hidden chambers of their minds, just as people whisper the words they're forbidden to speak aloud."

Also, one of Teza's original pastimes in solitary was getting Burmese cigarettes smuggled in to him, then unwrapping their newsprint wrappers to read them. Conveniently, a number of these scraps hold potential for poignancy: Teza would distill scraps like "his mother explain/ but I don't trust/ jealous of his love/ to crying every day/ escape the pressure/ sure he loves me bu/ not know his mother/ a terrible hell" to the more directly poignant "mother/ trust/ love/ wish/ escape/ hell."

Ultimately, "The Lizard Cage" is about how humanity is transformed and manifests itself within the walls of a foul, violent prison. The wonder of the human spirit, however, can be hard to express without succumbing to platitudes. Much more valuable and illustrative than the novel's persistently recurrent bits of quasi-poetry are its pages and pages of character study, in which the soul is more truthfully revealed through physical or psychological tics, dark humor and even passing observations.