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The Lizard Cage    by Karen Connelly order for
Lizard Cage
by Karen Connelly
Order:  USA  Can
Nan A. Talese, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This brilliant novel begins and ends with journeys, creating a symmetry that - despite the pain the story's context and content causes the reader - is also intensely satisfying. Set in 1990s Burma, it has two main protagonists, a man and a boy, both suffering, and brought together by circumstances in the Lizard Cage of a prison that surrounds them.

Teza comes from a family of protestors. His physician father was imprisoned as a communist sympathizer and died of dysentery when he was small. His younger brother Aung Min joined a group of rebels across the border in Thailand, begging Teza to flee with him. His mother, Daw Sanda, taught her sons to follow 'the First Precept, which is to refrain from harming or taking life.' Famed for his Songs of Protest, Teza has survived seven years of a twenty-year prison sentence, all to be spent in solitary confinement. He spends a great deal of his time in meditation, or watching the small creatures that scurry around his cell. His main regret is for the many lizards he's caught, killed, and eaten during his years of imprisonment to keep himself from starvation - he knows his vegetarian mother would lecture him about it.

Senior Jailer Chit Naing used to be responsible for the Songbird, but was reassigned, considered too lenient. In fact, his talks with his gentle prisoner and their 'illicit friendship', have transformed his life, leading him down a path of great danger, but also great freedom. The Chief Warden subsequently placed vicious Senior Jailer Nyunt Wai Oo, nicknamed Handsome for his looks, in charge of Teza. Fellow inmate Sein Yun brings food trays and empties Teza's bucket. He is trading off a sentence reduction for work undertaken for the jailers. One day he brings big news of the outside world - that protest leader Daw Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest. Soon afterwards, he brings Teza pen and paper (forbidden tools) with the information that other politicals in the prison are writing messages to her and want the influential Teza to write her a letter on prison conditions (the letters to end up at the UN). But can the affable Sein Yun be trusted?

Also in the jail but not an inmate is twelve-year-old orphan Nyi Lay (called many things by different inhabitants of the prison ecosystem, from Little Brother to Free El Salvador for the T-shirt he wears). The boy's father worked in the jail. The child runs errands in exchange for scraps and a place to sleep, kills and sells rats to prisoners, and loves his pet lizard. He has survived because he has a few friends in key positions, like powerful gangster inmate and drug smuggler Tan-see Tiger, who protects him as much as possible from abuse by other inmates and guards. Events bring this damaged (almost feral) child to Teza's attention, when his own situation is most desperate. The boy slowly grows to trust the singer and eventually returns kindness with kindness, giving Songbird hope. In return, he seeks to ameliorate Little Brother's situation.

I have difficulty with the categorization of The Lizard Cage - I wish I could say it's a historical novel, but sadly it is not. In many ways - in particular, the compassion its main character displays in the face of what seems unendurable - it reminds me of Eliot Pattison's outstanding Inspector Shan Tao Yun mystery series set in Tibet. Like Pattison, Karen Connelly gives us a lyrical affirmation of the strength of the human spirit, and of the power of spiritual beings to transcend the evil done by those around them. She tells us that 'Words are like ants. They work their way through the thickest walls, eating through bricks and feeding off the very silence intended to stifle them.' Indeed, her words have such power.

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