No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

#6: Sarah Canary -- Karen Joy Fowler

I've bounced off Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary several times over the last 15 years. I'm not sure why. I do remember it being the subject of heated debate when I first discovered fandom in the early 1990s. I didn't recall any of the detail of that debate when I sat down to read -- only that some people saw this novel as SF, and others didn't.

They're right.

Sarah Canary, an apparently mute and apparently well-dressed white woman, is discovered by a gang of Chinese loggers in a Washington Territory forest. It's 1873 -- a year for which Fowler provides excellent context in the collages of facts that precede each chapter -- amd the west coast of America is still pretty Wild, though there are no gold rushes, cowboys or covered wagons.

Instead there are outsiders. Chin, the Chinese man who first finds Sarah Canary, and subsequently buys his freedom from the local sheriff by executing an Indian; BJ, a young, intelligent and paranoid patient who escapes from the asylum where Sarah Canary (so dubbed because the noises she makes sound like song) is briefly incarcerated; Adelaide Dixon, suffragist and lecturer on female sexuality; Harold, a Civil War veteran who survived the prison at Andersonville, and now believes himself immortal.

And Sarah Canary herself, who is a tabula rasa onto which everyone projects what they want to see. Chin thinks first that she's a goddess, and then that she's amazingly ugly. (This seems to be mentioned in many reviews as an objective statement, but I think it has more to do with Chin's notions of beauty -- he comments elsewhere on her huge, because not bound, feet -- than with Sarah herself). BJ probably sees Sarah more clearly than most (he remarks on an unusual quality of her dress), but his narrative is in other respects the least reliable, for instance when he mistakes a seal for a person. Adelaide, meeting Sarah Canary, believes she's found a fugitive murderess. Harold sees the opportunity for a quick buck: the Alaskan Wild Woman. Here he is, exhibiting; here's Adelaide, across town, lecturing.

"Women are enigmas to you. She ..."
"... was raised by a she-wolf in a damp, flea-infested ..."
"... bed where one partner is taking pleasure at the expense of the other, shameless as ..."
"... a child who has suckled at the teat of the beast ..."
"... and yet,of course, I need explain the effect of unconsummated intercourse to no woman who is ..."
"... old enough to eat the raw meat for which she still retains ..."
"... an unnatural appetite, you men would have her believe, knowing nothing about her, and denying her a common humanity ..."

There's a strong feminist thread here, from the initial diagnoses of the doctor whose watch Sarah Canary swallows to Adelaide's fierce determination to be heard. Women aren't heard -- certainly aren't heeded -- in this novel. Men don't listen. (The sympathetic male characters in Sarah Canary are all outsiders: I can't offhand remember any positive sane white man -- hmm, maybe Burke the naturalist? Not to say that the rest are monsters, most of the time: they are terribly provoked, poor dears, by Females and Foreigners and other white men getting the better of 'em.)

This frontier is wild, nasty and brutal. A woman travelling alone had better have a gun to hand. A Chinese man is vulnerable and scorned. BJ remembers a fellow inmate being beaten to death at the asylum. Harold remembers his best friend, shot down crossing the line.

There's a great deal I wanted to understand about this novel even before I went back and looked at why it's often classed as SF. Does immortality happen? Does metamorphosis? Was that another chrysalis on the bed? What about the seals? And Chin's thoughts on a bird with one wing?

Fowler's writing is subtle, careful: repays close attention (it's easy to miss those hints): can be read as SF, or not-SF. I do wonder if anti-SF readers, encountering the author's remarks -- as for instance in this interview, 2004, spoilers -- might feel cheated.

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