THE VANCOUVER SUN REVIEW OF THE LIZARD CAGE

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THE LIZARD CAGE
DEBUT NOVEL 

There is something beautifully -- and surprisingly -- tender about Karen Connelly's debut novel, The Lizard Cage. Surprising because the novel concerns the brutal military dictatorship that seized power in Burma in 1988 and is still entrenched. With forced labour and food shortages part of daily reality there, you don't expect to find a strong thread of tenderness, and even humour, woven into a story about the continuing imprisonment of a people. 

In The Lizard Cage, Connelly peels away much of the political rhetoric and gives us the human story, which is both fragile and resilient. The novel opens in 1995, when the Red Cross reluctantly closed its Burmese offices because it was denied access to political prisoners. 

Teza, the central character, is "the most celebrated singer in Burma.” He has served seven years of a 20-year sentence for his part in the failed people’s revolution of 1988. He has spent much of the time in solitary confinement in the infamous "Teak Coffin." 

More an artist than a revolutionary, Teza had written a series of revolutionary songs at the urging of his brother, Aung Min. By 1995, these have become the underground currency of hope and quiet resistance for a people denied the most basic of human rights. 

The songs, "written in a violent present that bears witness to both the past and the future," are forbidden public play by the authorities, who clearly fear what Teza will do next and so keep him alive, but barely. Uttering his name, which in ancient Pali means "the fire of glory, of power,” is also forbidden. 

Teza's "glory" is that he prevails, seemingly without rancour. His world is the small world of the "cage," his encounters with his jailers, his memories and his perpetual hunger -- for food, and for news of the outside world. 

Buddhism plays a key role in The Lizard Cage. It appears in the quiet way Teza accepts his fate, in the moment-to-moment mindfulness that is expressed in his daily existence and in the small meditative ceremonies he performs -- especially his "Burmese cheroot ceremony," in which he extracts newspaper filters from his contraband cigarettes to receive poems and messages from the outside world. 

The fact that Karen Connelly is a poet (The Small Words in My Body, This Brighter Prison, The Border Surrounds Us) is very much evident here. Her prose is suffused with agonizingly sharp images: Teza subsisting on lizards; his insect companions (ants, spiders, cockroaches); the communicating eyes of sympathetic jailer Chit Naing. 

Consider this descriptions of life outside the Teak Coffin: “In the false darkness of the rain the gold stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda turns the colour of human skin.”

Connelly's ability to move deftly from Teza in the cage to the Burmese world outside the prison walls allows her to mix the hard facts of the failed uprising with storytelling. This gives an intensely human dimension to what might otherwise be read as news reporting. 

The one small difficulty in this mixing of genres, though, comes with the use of black-and-white photographs of Burmese and Indo-Burmese people from the"real world." The reader is frequently wrenched from the suspension of disbelief that fiction offers into an uneasy confrontation with "reality." 

In the lengthy acknowledgments at book's end, Connelly thanks the subjects of these photos -- anonymous people, "from young tea-shop workers to old betel-nut sellers," who gave her the strength to tell their story. 

Clearly, there is much at stake in The Lizard Cage. The book's connection to the present Burmese struggle is overt, yet it is Connelly's solid storytelling that, ultimately, is at the heart of this fine novel. Photos and humanitarian motives aside, she has managed to give us a tale that is not only heart-stirring but epic.

M.A.C. Farrant in The Vancouver Sun, October 1, 2005