This is the English publication of Fowler’s first 1991 novel – now issued following her Booker shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in 2013. When I spotted another by this author I snapped it up and was not disappointed. A rich and very strange tale.
In short, it is 1873 and in West Coast America a woman – Sarah Canary – falls into a Chinese railway camp. Chin is ordered by his uncle to return her to the asylum in Steilacoom. Once she is there he feels obliged to help her; she escapes – with BJ too – and the journey starts.
As they travel – and it is never clear where they are going, or why – others attach themselves to their group either momentarily or for longer. Each will have a back story as an explanation of why they are in the place they have crossed with Sarah or Chin. We see the complexities of life in an unsettled, but diverse, early America. Chin views everything through his Chinese perspective – in a racist and dangerous America, BJ sees things through his mental fragility and Sarah Canary says nothing. Who is Sarah Canary? And how do these others see her?
This deceptively complex novel is about relationships, communities and coping – but attachment and detachment too. At a deeper level it is about what people have in common, their difference; and the price one pays for both living and involving oneself in a wider community. This is a novel that needs to be read slowly, savoured and mulled over, but well worth the read.
Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
OIR: OUR INTREPID REPORTER: Nicola Smith at Off the Shelf Festival of Words 2015, Sheffield
I’M A WRITER . . . and I loved researching for my historical novel.
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