THE LIZARD CAGE by Karen Connelly
“Itâ€™s hard to catch a lizard with your bare hands.”
Review by Betsey Van Horn Â (JUL 23, 2011)
Burmese politics, including their political prison system, is harrowing and vicious. Not a lot has changed in the past fifty years or so, other than changing the name to Myanmar. Until very recently, they were under military rule and they are still one of the least developed nations in the world. Karen Connelly has not only written a striking and engaging tour de force about this area, but she has brought a country’s atrocities into focus that needs attention badly, and help from developed nations. However, she hasn’t forgotten the novelist’s rule of thumb to entertain. It doesn’t read like a diatribe or soapbox, it reads like an exquisite, dramatic story of friendship, endurance, compassion, love, and faith in the human condition.
Teza is a young man of (approximately) thirty who is revered by freedom fighters in Burma (Myanmar) for his political songs that expose the corrupt government, and give hope and spiritual fuel to the people. He is in solitary confinement in his seventh year of a twenty-year sentence for this “crime.” The conditions in this prison are something beyond harsh and cruel–absolutely appalling, savage–with lice, scurvy, rickets, bed bugs, and other illnesses invading the prison population. Also, the jailers frequently abuse the prisoners physically.
Teza has become adept at his Buddhist meditation practices and has a strange but beautiful relationship with the lizards, spiders, and ants that share his cell. The most desired item for prisoners, besides food–as he is practically starved by the warden and guards–is pen and paper. If caught with it, it adds another several years to your sentence. Teza is therefore in isolation with nothing but the creatures, a dirty mat, stinking water, inedible food, and his mind. He lives by the power of his heart and mind. Teza knows how to be free in this cage, and his subtle power over the jailers, a different kind of power, is fascinating to comprehend.
Little Brother is a twelve-year-old orphan whose father worked for the prison until he died. This young boy, who doesn’t read or write, knows nothing outside the prison, and has no desire to leave. He is afraid of the outside world. He spends his days running errands for the guards or helping the top-tier prisoners–the ones with lots of pull and power–get extras of food. He is beloved by the few that have half a heart, but generally treated as sewerage by those in power.
The story moves in graceful, gradual, lyrical strokes, bringing the world of the inmates and the jailers to a taut climax. The building relationship between Teza and Little Brother is the most weighty of all. It works brick by brick, like the building of a cell, layer upon layer, surging into an intense, suspenseful, atypical thriller. There are hints of Papillon,(although that story was non-fiction), but this is not a jailbreak thriller. But, like Papillon, it has much to do with the life inside the mind, and the cultivation of formidable inner strength, and the bonds between people who are seemingly so vastly different, and yet connected.
If you only read a handful of books this year, do read this one. Besides its presence as a quietly exciting, non-formulaic suspense thriller, it will invite and heighten interest in this culture and this country. You will thoroughly inhabit these characters and story, page by page; the quintessence of fine literature is actualized in the characters of Teza and Little Brother. Finally, this an unforgettable story that lives in, breaks, and mends the human heart.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 20 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Spiegel & Grau (April 8, 2008)|
|REVIEWER:||Betsey Van Horn|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Karen Connelly|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
- The Lizard Cage (2007)Â
- Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journa (1994)
- The Dream of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand (2001)
- Grace and Poison (2001)
- Burmese Love Song: A Memoir (May 2010)