The Lizard Cage is a beautiful, lyrical novel about a savage dictatorship and those who continue to stand against it. The long-lived despair and suffering of the Burmese people is ever-present in the novel and we are shown, through Connelly’s insightful and sympathetic treatment of all her characters, the myriad ways in which a totalitarian regime can break down society and dehumanise its people through a vicious cycle of corruption, brutality and fear. These processes are focused even more sharply in the terrible Burmese prison, known as “The Cage”, where it is the daily business of the jailers to break the spirits of their inmates, particularly the growing number of political prisoners. Yet it is against this landscape that the strength of the human spirit shines out strongest and Connelly succeeds in inspiring the greatest sense of triumph with even the smallest of victories.
The victories at the centre of this novel are catalysed by Teza, the Songbird. A gifted singer from a dissident family, his 12 Songs of Protest are still played secretly throughout Burma, even seven years after his arrest and isolation in solitary confinement. Cut off from all contact with the outside world, he searches for news and human connection in every being and object that is grudgingly allowed into his cell. Teza’s uncompromised humanity in the face of the severest abuse and hardship has a profound influence on the world of the cage. His very existence challenges the brutal authority of his jailers and the dictatorship itself while his Buddhist patience and humour inspires others, all trapped in the Cage in different ways, to radical change.
The most gratifying of these victories is Little Brother, an orphan child growing up inside the prison walls. The boy knows no other life than that inside the Cage and is trapped by his fear of the outside world. Though not a prisoner in the official sense, everyday Little Brother must witness the worst of human nature and injustice. Increasingly, he becomes a target for the anger, frustration and depravities of the men of the cage and we wonder whose path he will follow; Handsome, the angry and brutal junior jailer, Sein Yun, the devious, untrustworthy criminal, Chit Naing, the conscious ridden senior Jailer, or Teza the compassionate pacifist.
Though this is Connelly’s debut novel it benefits from her extensive experience as a writer of poetry and numerous non-fiction works about Burma. She has interviewed many Burmese rebels and former political prisoners, including Ang San Su Kyi, and many of their experiences have found their way into the novel. But what makes this book truly exceptional is the way it is crafted. Connelly has a poet’s eye for the minutiae of human behaviour and a playful skill with language, both English and Burmese, that delights and surprises on every page. Structurally also, The Lizard Cage is the work of a serious young talent and a deserved winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers in 2007.
This book is published by Vintage