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Book 8

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
  5. Carter, Angela — Heroes and Villains (152 pages)
  6. Burroughs, Edgar Rice — A Princess of Mars (209 pages)
  7. Hill, Susan — The Woman in Black (152 pages)
  8. Fowler, Karen Joy — Sarah Canary (293 pages)
Page count
1679

I am baffled by categorisation of Sarah Canary as science fiction — Gollancz has announced plans to release it as part of its SF Masterworks series — and mildly upset by reviews that insist on describing this as a first-contact novel. One may infer it (amongst other possibilities) from the text, but it is by no means a given. While Fowler has admitted that she feels Sarah is extraterrestrial, she has also asserted that her identity is meant to be ambiguous. The character's ambiguity is essential, and one does a disservice to read the book with preconceived notions as to who or what Sarah is. She is different things to different people, and the truth of her identity is of no consequence.

Sarah Canary is Karen Joy Fowler's brilliant debut novel about a most fascinating cast of characters traipsing around the Puget Sound area of Washington (and, later, San Francisco) in 1873. The title character mysteriously appears out of nowhere to a small group of Chinese labourers in the woods, unable to communicate in any meaningful way, uttering only chirps, clicks, and warbles: a minor character later gives her the name Sarah Canary because she sounds like a bird.

But Sarah is the central character only in the sense that she is a foil for everyone and everything around her. A remarkable cast of outsiders, each alien to the nineteenth-century American West in their own way, each wondering who Sarah is and defining her in ways that reinforce their own unique identities, get caught in her orbit as the story progresses.

The star of the novel is Chin Ah Kin, the Chinese scholar and migrant worker to whom responsibility for Sarah falls. He believes Sarah to be a goddess sent to test and reward him, and so he finds himself in unimaginable situations as he strives to do right by her. He is always deflecting attention away from himself as a survival mechanism, but Sarah's existence constantly draws attention back to him, and it is through these experiences that Chin is transformed and becomes more fully himself.

Chin is joined by B.J., inmate of the Steilacoom Asylum, who constantly worries that he may not in fact exist and seeks validation from interactions with the world around him, who sees in Sarah another questioning, troubled soul; Harold, Civil War veteran and survivor of the Andersonville prison, who believes he cannot die, who believes Sarah to be a feral child, like him transformed into something not quite human; and Adelaide, the suffragist, who believes Sarah to be the notorious Lydia Palmer wanted for the murder of an adulterer, who sees an ally in Sarah and her nonconformity.

Through these main characters, the various minor characters we encounter, and short passages between the chapters which provide historical and cultural background, Fowler gives us insight into the experience of immigrants, Native Americans, women, the mentally ill, war veterans, and others who may seem out of place within the context of the nineteenth-century American West. In this sense, Sarah Canary reminds me of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. But Sarah Canary is also a journey of self-discovery, a bildungsroman of sorts, for Chin especially but for others as well, and in many ways also is reminiscent of Homer's Odyssey. It's a tightly-structured novel with many layers of meaning and, perhaps most importantly, a delightfully enjoyable story.

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