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Sarah Canary (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by…

Sarah Canary (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (original 1991; edition 1998)

by Karen Joy Fowler

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5891916,710 (3.59)43
Title:Sarah Canary (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
Authors:Karen Joy Fowler
Info:Ballantine Books (1998), Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Your library

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Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (1991)

  1. 10
    Wild Life by Molly Gloss (lquilter)
    lquilter: Gloss writes beautifully, as does Fowler. The settings are similar -- 19th century Pacific Northwest. The premise is also related; an almost realistic novel that slips into SF-ality.
  2. 00
    The Vegetarian by Han Kang (vwinsloe)
    vwinsloe: Both books involve a mysterious woman and the perceptions, projections and assumptions about her by others.

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"'If Sarah Canary is just what she seems, harmless, vague ...' Chin thought Sarah Canary had never seemed harmless or vague to him. Mysterious, rather. Possibly powerful. Certainly purposeful." -- Karen Joy Fowler, 'Sarah Canary'

When you make assumptions about people, assume you are wrong. That is one conclusion to be drawn from Karen Joy Fowler's mysterious, powerful and certainly purposeful 1991 novel "Sarah Canary."

Sarah Canary, a name just bestowed on her because nobody knows her real name, is mute. She is a "strange and ugly white woman" who shows up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s. Everyone has a different idea of who or what she might be. To Chin, who has come all the way from China to work on the railroad, she seems like a ghost, and he feels somehow obligated to watch over her. Soon she is assumed to be mentally ill and, along with Chin, is locked away in an asylum. She soon escapes with Chin and B.J., another of the inmates.

Later Sarah is thought to be a wild woman raised by wolves and is made a part of a traveling show, even though audiences find her disappointingly tame. Adelaide, a suffragette, mistakes her for a woman on the run for killing her husband. Others think her a man in disguise. There is even a suggestion she could be an alien from outer space. Readers never discover who Sarah Canary really is. True to the spirit of her novel, Fowler lets us make our own assumptions and draw our own conclusions.

Yet Fowler's novel is more than a satire on people's misconceptions about other people. It could be viewed as a philosophical treatise on reality itself. Consider the following lines near her conclusion:

"What we say occupies a very thin surface, like the skin over a body of water. Beneath this, through the water itself, is what we see, sometimes clearly if the water is calm, sometimes vague if the water is troubled, and we imagine this vision to be the truth, clear or vague. But beneath this is yet another level. This is the level of what is and this level has nothing to do with what we say or what we see."

And a few pages later:

"We listen to stories and forget that the listening also tells the story. The story we hear is ourselves. We are the only ones who can hear it."

Thus, what I see and hear is not what you see and hear, even if we are in the same place at the same time. It helps explain political differences, religious differences and, in fact, the differences that create every division, every argument, every war. It also explains the power of literature itself. What I read in a story, including this story, is not at all what you will read. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Aug 22, 2016 |
A mysterious and grotesque white woman wanders into a camp of Chinese railway workers in the winter of 1873. When Chin Ah Kin is chosen to lead her back to civilization, he is caught up in an adventure that will take him from the dark heart of the Washington Territory to the teeming streets of San Francisco. A reluctant, superstitious Chin is joined by a host of eccentrics and misfits who imbue the woman they come to call Sarah Canary with their own dreams and fears
  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Off beat period piece -a sly satirical feminist text.
The closest thing in texture that I could compare it to, are the 2 oddball neo western films -"Silent Tongue" directed by Sam Shepard, and "Dead Man" directed by Jim Jarmusch.
She has a very convincingly rendered mentally ill character, who's quite amusing without being a derogatory stereotype.
Liked the novel a great deal! ( )
  arthurfrayn | Sep 27, 2014 |
I do not know what to make of this book. I suspected I wasn't going to enjoy it, since I haven't enjoyed other stuff by Karen Joy Fowler, but that's not exactly what happened. I did get caught up in the story, intrigued by the mystery of Sarah Canary. At the same time, I felt like it was one of a type of novel I don't get on very well with, something very opaque, where motivations aren't clear and things just happen to the characters as if they are just giving themselves over to whichever way life pushes them.

Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that kind of story, it just doesn't really do anything for me. Well, I'm sure there are exceptions, but this wasn't one -- the best I can say is that I read it very quickly, I had no intention of stopping, and I did find it interesting. Partially because of the genre-twisty is-this-SF question about it, rather than because of it -- ambiguous stories don't bother me, but the combination of style and character here did.

On the other hand, I did like the portrayal of B.J. For all that he's clearly "not all there" in colloquial terms, he's good at heart and the way he sees the world makes for an interesting point of view. The passages from his point of view were maybe the best in the novel, for me. ( )
  shanaqui | Aug 11, 2014 |
I read this novel because I was so smitten by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and the cover blurb was intriguing. It is winter of 1873 near Tacoma, and a woman suddenly appears in a railroad workers’ camp. She does not seem to understand Chinese or English, or to speak intelligibly. Chin Ah Kin is the first to see her, and when she doesn’t leave on her own despite numerous hints, he is appointed to escort her to... where? Perhaps she came from the insane asylum in Steilacoom? Turns out no, after they arrive circuitously and separately, but there she acquires a name, Sarah Canary, and they acquire a companion, inmate B. J. Escaping into the wilderness, the three encounter Harold, who kidnaps Sarah Canary to exhibit as the Alaskan Wild Woman, in which capacity she is recognized by suffragette lecturer Adelaide Dixon as a fugitive from justice, a woman accused of murdering her husband. A case of mistaken identity, but now Adelaide rescues Sarah Canary from exploitation, Chin and B.J. are still trying to find her, Harold is trying to get her back, and it remains completely unclear who she actually is. Inserted between chapters are real historical tidbits indicating that fiction is no weirder than fact; the times were strange. I was confused, but that’s intentional, a commentary on perception. I respected rather than enjoyed the story.

(read 27 Nov 2013)
  qebo | Dec 1, 2013 |
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You only comprehend things which you perceive.  And as you persist in regarding your ideas of time and space as absolute, although they are only relative, and thence form a judgment on truths which are quite beyond your sphere, and which are imperceptible to your terrestrial organism and faculties, I should not do a true service, my friend, in giving you fuller details of my ultra-terrestrial observations. --Camille Flammarion, Lumen, 1973
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The years after the American Civil War were characterized by excess, ornamented by cults and corruptions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0452286476, Paperback)

When black cloaked Sarah Canary wanders into a railway camp in the Washington territories in 1873, Chin Ah Kin is ordered by his uncle to escort "the ugliest woman he could imagine" away. Far away. But Chin soon becomes the follower. In the first of many such instances, they are separated, both resurfacing some days later at an insane asylum. Chin has run afoul of the law and Sarah has been committed for observation. Their escape from the asylum in the company of another inmate sets into motion a series of adventures and misadventures that are at once hilarious, deeply moving, and downright terrifying.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:37 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

When a hideous woman appears without warning in Washington Territory, Chin Ah Kin--certain that she is an immortal sent to enchant him--decides to return her to her white world, and their journey together becomes a magnet for a cast of eccentric characters.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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