Karen Connelly was deemed something of a prodigy in 1993, when, at age 24, she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal. Connelly has continued to astound, most notably with her 2005 novel, The Lizard Cage, about a Burmese political prisoner, which won the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers in Britain.
Connelly’s latest offering can be considered a non-fiction prequel to The Lizard Cage. In this new book, we learn how the author constructed the characters and researched the events contained in her much-praised novel.
Burmese Lessons is really two books in one. The first half is a haunting and poetic account of the author’s visits to the oppressed Burmese capital of Rangoon. The latter half is mainly set in neighbouring Thailand, where Connelly has a passionate but troubled affair with the charismatic leader of a Burmese guerrilla group.
Connelly fans will be enthralled. Together, the two distinct sections reveal aspects of a writer’s life that are normally kept hidden. However, the two halves are so different in tone that they do not sit comfortably between the same covers. The Burmese portion unfolds like a dream and, at times, like a nightmare. The Thai half is written in a more down-to-earth, conversational style filled with true confessions, including some startling revelations about Connelly’s life at age 17, just as she was leaving her hometown of Calgary for the Thai adventure that spawned Touch the Dragon.
Connelly’s eureka moment in Burmese Lessons occurs one spooky night when she is lost in Rangoon and stops to ask some rail yard workers for a drink of water. One of the workers is a “feral” boy, somewhere between nine and 12 years old. Connelly is mesmerized by this child labourer who, the author decides, shall be one of the central characters in a novel. That night provided the genesis for The Lizard Cage.
If nothing else, Burmese Lessons will entice you to read or reread Connelly’s novel. But despite its flaws, her new book also shows that the expectations foisted upon a prodigy in 1993 were not misplaced.