There’s a lot to love about Karen Connelly’s writing. Her voice is strong and confident, lingering in the reader’s ears long after the book’s pages have been closed. Her descriptive style is lush. She is capable of immersing the reader in the sights, sounds, smells and textures of any given environment, whether it’s the smoggy cacophony of Bangkok’s endless rush hour, the verdant stillness of the Thai jungle or the deep blue balm of an Aegean Eden. Connelly takes her readers to all these places and more in her latest book, a non-fiction work entitled Burmese Lessons.
Apart from some brief sections describing Connelly’s island sanctuary in Greece, the book is set in Burma and Thailand. The Canadian-born writer lived in Thailand for a year as an exchange student at the age of seventeen. Since then she has traveled the world, learned many languages, and published nine books of poetry, non-fiction and fiction, including the award-winning novel The Lizard Cage. She has a facility with languages (she speaks Thai and, as the title suggests, also learned Burmese). Her obvious intelligence and her extensive knowledge of the historical, political, and social context of this particular geographic region make her clearly well qualified to write about the ongoing struggle for freedom in Burma.
Why then does Burmese Lessons ultimately leave the reader feeling annoyed and dissatisfied, as though against her better judgment she has been enticed into consuming too many Thai fried bread sticks and is now too full to eat any real food? Perhaps it is because this reader’s expectations were too high. Connelly is so successful, so confident and skilled that I really wanted to find myself beguiled and bewitched. But repeated reminders of Connelly’s youth (she was twenty-eight when she returned to Thailand) and her beauty, which she and various other characters comment on throughout the book, frustrated me. I started wondering if, despite her many accomplishments, Connelly might actually believe that a woman’s appearance is her most important attribute.
Disturbing are also the number of negative female characters who cross her path. There are women journalists who are jealous of her youth and beauty and a Spanish artist who bitchily questions her ability to create good art while being political. There is Marla the activist who accuses Connelly of being irresponsible and unethical. Not to mention a racist Thai woman who refuses to let a Burmese child share a seat in a songtow, and Angie, who competes for the attentions of Connelly’s handsome Burmese lover and “throws a look like a machete between my eyes.”
The writer does make a point of telling us how committed she is to women’s rights. She insists that she enjoys the company of women. She articulates how disturbed she is about the lack of women in the upper echelons of the dissident community. But if she really is concerned with the plight of women, why then does she choose to introduce us to so many disagreeable ones?
Ironically, Burmese Lessons is also undermined by Connelly’s skills as a novelist. In fiction we expect and accept information that clearly forebodes future events. In non-fiction, especially when it is written in the present tense, we enjoy the illusion that what we are reading is happening in that moment. We want to believe that the writer hasn’t had the time to construct clever clues and to place them carefully along the way. But when the writer enthuses about the amazing women who have married Burmese men and settled in Thailand, we can guess what’s in the cards. It’s obvious that the handsome man she has flirted with at a Christmas party a few pages before will inevitably tempt her to do the same. Similarly, the sections describing in detail the symptoms and dangers of malaria read as unmistakable signals. We know as we read these sections that Connelly will contract the disease before the book is over. In these moments Connelly’s many talents lose some of their magic. And we are left wishing that when it comes to Burmese Lessons, at least, there was a little more of her to love.
B.A. Markus is a writer, musician and mother who regularly ate too many fried bread sticks when she was in Thailand.