THE LIZARD CAGE by Karen Connelly (Random House), 528 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNnN Rating: NNNN
In The Lizard Cage, her first novel, Karen Connelly returns to the Far East, the site of her 1993 memoir, Touch The Dragon. This time she exposes the horrific lives of political prisoners who've been "caged" for expressing dissent under Burma's ruling dictatorship.
We spend most of the story in a cramped teak-and-concrete cell - the lizard cage of the title - with Teza, whose protest songs have landed him in solitary for two decades. Tortured and tormented, Teza refuses to become a broken victim. He "escapes" through memories of life on the outside, but finds the greatest release through Buddhist ritual.
As Handsome, the brutally power-mad junior jailer, inflicts ever more violent punishments on Teza, the pacifist prisoner connects with Nyi Lay, an orphan who survives by killing rats and delivering food trays to inmates.
Connelly demonstrates a gift for describing sensory details without resorting to lazy exoticism. The cage's mildewed concrete leaves a clammy residue on your hands; you can taste the deliciously stinky salted fish Teza yearns for and smell the acrid smoke of contraband cheroots. That talent for detail also makes her descriptions of the violent prison atrocities almost too much to bear.
With such politically charged material, Connelly's occasional lapses into didacticism are understandable. Sections covering the history of colonialism and human rights violations in Burma feel like textbook articles, especially in contrast to Connely's poetic prose.
But her ability to draw subtle parallels between the scars left on a country by imperialism and those left on a child by abuse is stunning, her exploration of politically engaged Buddhism intriguing. She also shows great grace in speaking for those silenced by fear and violence. These are stories that need to be told.
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