Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

The Lizard Cage

by Karen Connelly

You don’t need to start reading Karen Connelly’s latest knowing anything about her Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 1993 or her five books of poetry or her enduring love for the country of Burma. In fact, the perfect reader of this novel wouldn’t be aware of Connelly at all, so that her accumulation of talents could just creep in, chapter by chapter.

The Lizard Cage is ridiculously and beautifully cinematic, and not in a way that implies its author is playing for movie tie-in rights. Connelly knows her vistas and street scenes but she can, and does, get down to the smallest details of a tiny prison cell. Among the cockroaches in this cell in Burma (known officially as Myanmar) is a political prisoner with a dangerously resonant singing voice and a talent for upsetting the hardline government with a few chords and the truth.

His name, Teza, means “the fire of glory, of power,” and he is currently working through year seven of a 20-year sentence. Thanks to the beatings and the bowls of thin curry, his body has weakened. He is a Buddhist; he should never kill another living organism, but it’s hard to serve a Burmese sentence locked in solitary teak confinement without eating a few lizards. He tries to hide their little bones in his waste.

From Teza’s cell the novel broadens out to take in the characters who come into contact with the singer, including a sympathetic jailer at odds with his role as enforcer, and his immediate underling, a homicidal and good-looking jailer named, fittingly, Handsome. Teza’s shit pail is emptied out by a chatty convict named Sein Yun, who runs scams, favours, and drugs through the prison. He’s also Teza’s main source of news.

Word does trickle in from the outside. Connelly is not working in an alternative, disguised version of Burma. Teza learns that reknowned dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed. Aung San Suu Kyi is the figurehead of the opposition to the military dictatorship, a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991, and a lingering presence throughout the novel.

Connelly is an exacting writer. She burrows into scenes and surroundings and returns with startling imagery. There are great moments in the book, strung together like honed passages in a collection of poetry. Those aware of her bio will notice how her talents as poet, travel writer, and novelist mingle in sections.

Here’s one passage that’s stayed with me: Teza is desperate to keep his wits in the cage, so he performs what he calls the Burmese Cheroot Ceremony. He extracts two pieces of newspaper from filters of each of his 10 contraband smokes. He pieces together the words to form a poem, a message from the outside world that will sustain and focus his mind before he shreds the papers and drop them into his shit pail so that they’re not discovered. It’s a simple, necessary ceremony. It keeps him sane, and Connelly lays it out beautifully.

Throughout she is well aware of the big picture, the injustice and suffering in Burma. But thankfully Connelly lets these larger issues unfold along with the immediate concerns of Teza’s life. In his world, even struggling to kill and eat a lizard becomes a political act.

There is, however, one problem with the book. For some reason, either the author or editor has chosen to embed photographs in the text at different points in the story. This strategy worked well in books like Sebald’s Austerlitz, where the photos augmented the text with mystery and meaning. Here they look like tourist snaps. Whenever I encountered one I felt let down, as if there had been a deflation in the narrative.

Connelly spends paragraphs building detail into her characters, forcing each of her readers to create their own images of jailkeepers, quick-handed thieves, and the throngs in the streets. Early on, Sein Yun delivers his heroin to one of the rulers of the prison, a wonderfully rendered villain named Tan-see Tiger, who got his name from the feline tattoos across his body. “There is something of the tiger about him too,” writes Connelly, “with those languid, droopy eyes, that big head covered in a thick bristle of fur.” So far so good; the character stirs to life.

Unfortunately, the photo that immediately follows this passage is of two slightly bandy legs with a weak tiger tattoo crawling up the thigh – completely unthreatening. The pleasure of creation in the reader’s mind is taken away with each added image. A few times I flipped the page to find a photo of a character I had already thought up. Weaker writers might need visual aides; Connelly surely does not.

Hopefully plenty of accolades will be granted to the novel’s author, but the real winner here is the setting. The Burma of The Lizard Cage is not just a worthy cause for an Amnesty International appeal. Connelly’s fine novel shows us the kind of suffering that newspapers can’t communicate and non-fiction rarely reaches. With an unerring eye, she gives us the texture of a cell and a country.


Reviewer: Craig Taylor

Publisher: Random House Canada


Price: $34.95

Page Count: 516 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-679-31022-3

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2005-9

Categories: Fiction: Novels