three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Lizard CageWelcome to hell. Teza, a political prisoner, is serving a 20-year sentence in solitary confinement in a squalid Burmese jail. Imprisoned for performing protest songs about Burma’s military dictatorship, he now struggles to find meaning in a life filled with beatings by vicious guards, treacherous scheming by fellow inmates, and near starvation. In order to survive, Teza must discover the significance hidden in mundane activities: observing the ants in his cell, reading the scraps of newspaper that filter Burmese cigarettes, and cautiously befriending the prison’s 12-year-old errand boy. Through Teza’s relationship with this illiterate orphan, the novel exposes the strong human connections that can survive even the most horrific circumstances.
Nan A. Talese. 448 pages. $26. ISBN: 0385518188

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Connelly’s] writing is muscular and taut, bringing inmates and warders fully alive. Still more impressive, she avoids anything so trite as affirmation of the human spirit in the face of injustice. … Through [Teza], she shows us what autobiography usually veils: the human spirit not at its most defiant and brave, but as it really is and can only be." Lorraine Adams

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"The book comes close, after the Zen-like pace of the first half, to making a reader want to set it down and take breath after breath of free air. When you pick it up again, and you should, you will find further suffering and torture of characters whose only desire is to walk free, in body as well as mind." Alan Cheuse

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"When the world becomes thus inured to the ghastly crimes of faraway regimes, it is left to artists, writers and filmmakers to re-engage our attention. Karen Connelly does exactly this with The Lizard Cage, a thrilling, depressing, vital excoriation of the military junta that has ruled Burma for decades." Philip Delves Broughton

Globe and Mail (Toronto) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There are no gratuitous scenes, no shrillness, no pandering to particular audiences. Instead there are graceful images and observations which, most likely, will remain with the reader long after he or she has put aside the book." Rabindranath Maharaj

Vancouver Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Connelly’s ability to move deftly from Teza in the cage to the Burmese world outside the prison walls allows her to mix the hard facts of the failed uprising with storytelling. This gives an intensely human dimension to what might otherwise be read as news reporting." M.A.C. Farrant

Guardian 3 of 5 Stars
"[A] brave, though ultimately flawed, mixture of political treatise, personal meditation and conventional thriller." Tash Aw

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Though Connelly pays fastidious attention to detail and presents some well-fleshed-out characters over the course of several hundred pages, she also has a weakness for the sappy. … Much more valuable and illustrative than the novel’s persistently recurrent bits of quasi-poetry are its pages and pages of character study, in which the soul is more truthfully revealed through physical or psychological tics, dark humor and even passing observations." Kim Hedges

Critical Summary

Award-winning poet and nonfiction writer Karen Connelly drew upon the two years she spent living among exiles and refugees on the Thailand-Burma border for The Lizard Cage, her debut novel. Winner of the 2007 Orange Prize for New Writers and a finalist for the Kiriyama Pacific Rim award, The Lizard Cage is a harrowing but rewarding read that abounds with compelling characterizations and evocative details. Critics almost universally admired these traits but disagreed over Connelly’s use of language. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, found that Connelly’s prose sometimes "teeters a little too precariously on the border between poetic and maudlin," while others praised its lyricism. A small price to pay for the author’s unique insight into the dark side of Burmese life.