Set during Burma's military dictatorship of the mid—1990s, Karen Connelly’s exquisitely written and harshly realistic debut novel is a hymn to human resilience and love.
In the sealed-off world of a vast Burmese prison known as the cage, Teza languishes in solitary confinement seven years into a twenty-year sentence. Arrested in 1988 for his involvement in mass protests, he is the nation’s most celebrated songwriter whose resonant words and powerful voice pose an ongoing threat to the state. Forced to catch lizards to supplement his meager rations, Teza finds emotional and spiritual sustenance through memories and Buddhist meditation. The tiniest creatures and things–a burrowing ant, a copper-coloured spider, a fragment of newspaper within a cheroot filter–help to connect him to life beyond the prison walls.
Even in isolation, Teza has a profound influence on the people around him. His integrity and humour inspire Chit Naing, the senior jailer, to find the courage to follow his conscience despite the serious risks involved, while Teza’s very existence challenges the brutal authority of the junior jailer, perversely nicknamed Handsome. Sein Yun, a gem smuggler and prison fixer, is his most steady human contact, who finds delight in taking advantage of Teza by cleverly tempting him into Handsome's web with the most dangerous contraband of all: pen and paper.
Lastly, there's Little Brother, an orphan raised in the jail, imprisoned by his own deprivation. Making his home in a tiny, corrugated-metal shack, Little Brother stays alive by killing rats and selling them to the inmates. As the political prisoner and the young boy forge a cautious friendship, we learn that both are prisoners of different orders; only one of them dreams of escape and only one of them achieves it.
Barely able to speak, losing the battle of the flesh but winning the battle of the spirit, Teza knows he has the power to transfigure one small life, and to send a message of hope and resistance out of the cage.
Shortlisted for both the Kiriyama Prize for Fiction and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The Lizard Cage has received rave reviews nationally and internationally.
Karen Connelly’s first book of poetry, The Small Words in My Body, won the Pat Lowther Award. Her first book of prose, Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal – an account of the year she spent in Thailand at seventeen – won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction in 1993; at twenty-four, she was the youngest writer ever to win that prize.
The Lizard Cage, Connelly’s first novel, was shortlisted for both the Kiriyama Prize for Fiction and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. To write it, she found she had to lock herself in the cage along with the main character. For nine long years she imagined she was trapped in a windowless, 8 x 10 jail cell. “I cried every day for the first four years that I worked on that book,” Connelly said in an interview with Reader’s Digest. “There were times when I thought I would never be free of it.” She went on to explain what helped to urge her forward, "I came to realize that I was making my contribution to the largely unwritten history of kindness. At least that's one of my motives–to contribute to the literature of how people retain and nurture their humanity, particularly in difficult situations."
Karen Connelly is currently working on a book of essays set in the refugee camps and among the rebel armies along the Burmese-Thai border. She makes her home in Toronto.
Shortlisted for the 2006 International Kiriyama Prize
“A feat of epic vision…. The suspense never relents. Hope is small, but it lives, strengthened by this powerful book.”
–Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace
“These are stories that need to be told.”
“By turns delights, surprises and shocks. But even when writing of some of the darkest depths to which humanity can sink, Connelly’s poet’s heart shines through.… The resiliency of the human spirit is the beacon that informs this work.”
“The Lizard Cage is ridiculously and beautifully cinematic…. 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.”
–Quill & Quire
“Connelly’s writing is fluid and well-paced, and her fictive prison world, set in the actual political hellhole that is present-day Burma, is as affecting as any UN statistical report about the conditions of life in that ruined country.”
Praise for Karen Connelly:
"Karen Connelly has an enviable, somewhat disquieting ability to possess the spirit of a place. . . The unknown, the faraway, the endlessly strange spring to life in her work."
—Books in Canada
"Hers is an authentic voice, the voice of a born poet intoxicated by language."
—Atlantic Books Today
". . . a genius for framing the texture of daily life — the feel, the shape, the inner longing, the sounds — in language of sublime perfection."
—The Hamilton Spectator
"Touch the Dragon is a splendid evocation of a place and a people that remain, for most of us, in dreams. Few can record such dreams — but Karen Connelly has done so."
"Karen Connelly not only illuminates a society, but shows us, through the beauty, energy and humour of her language and imagery, how this strange place touched and changed her, allowing her to receive and understand a common humanity."