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Book Takes Readers Inside 'The Lizard Cage'

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Karen Connelly's novel "The Lizard Cage" was a finalist for last year's Kiriyama prize for fiction. The award recognizes outstanding books about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says "The Lizard Cage" is a harrowing piece of fiction with a lyrical streak about inmates and jailers in a Burmese prison.

ALAN CHEUSE: "The Lizard Cage", the title, is the nickname for the prison that stands on the outskirts of Rangoon in the 1990s. Connelly gives us the story of its most famous political prisoner, a Burmese musician and writer of protests songs named Teza, known inside the gates of the pen as the songbird and Zaw Gyi, an illiterate young Burmese orphan, a prison worker whom Teza befriends.

The suffocating atmosphere of Teza's prison existence and the Zen-like pace of the first half of the novel made this reader want to set the book down and take breath after breath of free air. When the head jailer sets in motion a plot to add years to the already long sentence Teza is serving, the plot of the novel churns into action with a monstrous campaign against the tough-minded songbird and his young pal that includes torture and leads to a vicious rape, and a vision of a future troubled yet full of hope.

As you read this novel, you may feel as Zaw Gyi does when he thinks about sitting quietly with a book and slowly turning the pages and following the lines with his eyes. He can't read, the novelist tells us, but he recognizes that page after page of lines are made of letters, letters that made words and inside those words he knew were human voices. Pick up this book and you'll hear these voices loud and clear.

SIGEL: The book is "The Lizard Cage" by Karen Connelly. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and he is co-editor of "Writer's Workshop In A Book."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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