The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly (2005)


It’s been a bit crazy at work this week, although, amazingly enough, we are almost halfway through the semester already. This new job keeps me busy, and busy equals happy for me. (Plus, I can’t quite believe that I actually hold this job sometimes as it’s that good!)

Apart from the being occupado at work, I’ve also been reading and writing in my spare time, and it’s finally reaching autumn temperatures around here more days than not, so what’s not to love?

There has been one tragic thing that occurred on campus last week, which was a troubled student shot and killed one of our campus police officers. Life on campus has been a little subdued for the last few days, unsurprisingly, and our thoughts are with the family of the fallen officer. It’s been a sad week.

Not to be insensitive or anything, life has been moving along despite this event, and I’ve finished up a great book called “The Lizard Cage” by Karen Connelly (2005), a novel that follows the life of a political prisoner who is being unjustly held in a horrible cell in Burma/Myanmar (depending on who you ask). It’s from the POV of the prisoner, and it details his day-by-day life in prison in solitary confinement (the cage of the title) and the people with whom he interacts.

It’s a great read, although the subject matter can be hard to take (prison rape, inhumane treatment, etc.). It’s actually written by an American woman who lived for two years on the border of Burma/Myanmar, and it’s quite amazing how she can lead the reader into the head of this political prisoner in a realistic manner. It’s clear that she has done her research with this.

Despite the harsh living conditions and inhumane treatment, the protagonist is a great example of human resilience, and there are some other patches of humanity that are allowed to shine through. Some of the other prisoners are not horrible people, there is a small boy orphan who lives at the prison as he has nowhere else to go, and there are a few others that come and go, but for the most part, it seemed to be a pretty dark place.

However, the prisoner in question (he who lives in the Lizard Cage) finds small things for which to be grateful – the lizards who climb down the walls from the outside skylight, the ant colony who travel through his space, and the one or two people who show him some small kindness in this unpleasant world.

However, Connelly has done a good job with making this a very readable book without glossing over the hardships of the characters. It’s a good balance and kudos should go to her.

I also read another book, but can’t remember what the title of that was to save my life. Unlike my typical slightly obsessive habit, I didn’t seem to write down the relevant details, but hey. Life goes on, my friends.

Then I started a NF read about Victorian times, but it was soooo badly written that I ended up not being to take it any more, so threw that one down. (It was a shame though, as the topic was perfect: the servants of Victoria? Yes please, but it was not to be.)

Now I’m enjoying a read of Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. Victorian times? Check. Social history? Check. Uses some epistolary work? Check. Well written? Check, check, check. I’m enjoying it and am looking forward to reading some more of this over the weekend.

Hope life is good for you as well.

The Sanctuary of Outcasts – Neil White (2009)

Sanctuary of Outcasts book coverThis was quite a provocative read for me and told an interesting history of a place I had not heard of. Neil White was convicted of kiting checks for his business (more than one time), and although he skated through the first time, he was caught red-handed after that.

The prison where White was sentenced was Carville, Louisiana, and was a former leprosarium – a former care facility for people with Hansen’s Disease (or leprosy) who share their home with minimum security felons. There is much made of this contrast between White the convict (who sees himself as a handsome blue-eyed white boy with interior deformities) and the colony patients (who are portrayed as deformed on the outside to the human eye but morally lovely inside).  (This comparison was clumsy at best, and made as subtly as a substantial kick in the head.) The actual history of Carville itself (and the care facility) was absolutely fascinating – the story of White less so, but as it is his memoir, we get lots more White.

I read the book halfway and was quite annoyed at the author at this point. Here is what I wrote at the 50% point:

“White does not seem to feel regret for his crime – only for being caught. He reports that he “mishandled” the money and that it was “for the good of my family” – and then what makes it OK for you and not the thousands of other people who also have families and choose not to steal (which is what you were doing)?  You stole money, Mr. White. That’s it plain and simple. Do not rationalize your bad behavioural choices. There is no grey area here. You did or you did not. In this case, you did…”

OK. Having now finished the book, this beginning section makes more sense (although it does strike me as somewhat manipulative to the reader). White ends up vowing change his ways and as the book progresses (and there is one large life-affecting event), you as the reader can follow his journey. (Well, not far as he is in prison for 99% of this book.)

This was a fast read with short chapters, but I am still not a big fan on White. He seems to be a bit of jerk and didn’t seem to be sincere about his changes in prison. I don’t know – perhaps he did, but he spins rather a hyperbolic story here (perhaps thinking of how Hollywood could handle it at some point).

Some niggling bits for me included some careless editing and repetition of facts (within a short span), and White went on and on about the nuns at the start of the story, but then never mentions them again (except vaguely during regular church services). I’m sure the nuns were mentioned with the heavy-handed goal of comparing good/angelic (nuns et al.) with bad boys (convicts) but this ball gets dropped pretty quickly.

One thing I did appreciate was the structure of the narrative. The book begins (naturally) at the start of White’s prison sentence and is then divided into sections reflecting the seasons of the year (summer etc.) This traces the expected narrative arc (Happy summer. Unhappy dark winter) so it could be argued that this reflects White’s maturity and growth (perhaps his redemption) as he learns from his experience. (Or, if one were being grumpy, it could be argued that this was a trite and unoriginal way to demonstrate growth of the protagonist.)

I think the biggest issue I had with this memoir was that, despite its interesting history, this was a rather tired storyline with a character who I don’t really like that much or have that much empathy for.  I don’t need to like a character in a book to enjoy the story (think Stone Angel, Doris Lessing’s characters or Margaret Fountaine), but I think that there does need to be some redeeming characteristics for the protagonist, and tbh, I couldn’t see enough of these to really care.