Henry Holt and Company, 1991

Kathleen Ann Goonan
Karen Joy Fowler

This review first appeared in the Science Fiction Eye.

If you were to delve into the poems of Emily Dickinson contextless and treated each as an isolated puzzle, you would be rewarded by a glimpse of rigorous intellect and a new vision of the world and of the uses of language.

But if you were to subscribe to a new context--that the poet had a lover whose identity and importance to herself she could not reveal--a new vision streams from these obscure and beautiful collections of words. (Exactly this argument is put forth in, among other books, The Marriage of Emily Dickinson, William H. Shurr, University of Kentucky Press).

This change in perception generates new meaning, and neither is lesser than the other, or more true.

Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler's first novel, avowedly concerns itself with the nature of perception. It does this with wit and enormous--excuse the pun, for the book contains an in-joke, of sorts--humanity.

But let us begin at the beginning. What do a shanghaied Mandarin scholar fluent in German and English, a survivor of Andersonville Prison who believes himself immortal, an inmate of Steilacoom Territorial Asylum, and a feminist on a lecture tour have in common? You are allowed to use the Emily Dickinson poems which preface each chapter as clues, if you must--the poems so seamlessly meld with each chapter that they may have served as a blueprint for the plot. The obvious link between these disparate characters is Sarah Canary herself. But there are other commonalities. They are all outcasts, and they all have their own peculiar view of reality.

The book opens in the Washington Territory, circa 1873. The laborers in a Chinese railroad workers camp are startled to see a white woman materialize from the forest. Sarah Canary does not speak; she only makes sounds--sometimes melodious, sometimes a series of clicks. Nor does she ever communicate with humans in any meaningful way, save when she kicks a man intending to rape her and stabs him with a chopstick.

Chin, the aforementioned scholar, at first takes the woman for an immortal, a goddess whose ways are inscrutable to humans. Chin feels compelled to lead her back to the town he supposes she has come from. Their travels take them to Steilacoom, where they are briefly confined. Chin is forced to hang an Indian in order to secure his freedom from jail, and the woman is whisked away to the Steilacoom Asylum, where she is christened Sarah Canary by an inmate.

Expensively clothed and unknowable, Sarah remains a cipher throughout the book. But the true cipher--the genius which lies within the concept of the zero, or within the encoded message--can contain a wealth of meanings.

Anyone familiar with the history of misogyny will remember Dr. Moebius, a respected contemporary of Freud, who declared, "The differences in head between the sexes, just as those between the races, must be reduced to mental differences. It is clear enough that the relationship between brain and body is not the same in the two sexes. A normal man, even if he be small, needs a head circumference of at least 53 sm, whereas a woman gets along well with 51 cm. Thus, for the tasks of a woman's life, a brain that has room within a head of 51 cm is sufficient. But for the tasks of a man's life it is not enough. With 51 cm one can be an intelligent woman, but not an intelligent man."

This is the social milieu we are made aware of, and which we never leave, once we enter the Steilacoom Territorial Asylum. Dr. Carr, director of the Steilacoom Asylum, contributes such gems as "The gray substance and the white substance in the male brain are also heavier than in the female," and concludes that "Men are better at manly things. Women are better at being women." After Sarah Canary swallows the watch with which Dr. Carr has attempted to hypnotize her, he says, "I don't think this session can usefully continue. I think the basic trust necessary between patient and doctor has been somewhat violated."

During their stay at the Asylum, Chin and Sarah meet B.J., an inmate, who often returns to a slit in the wood of the kitchen door frame to touch it; it is the record of the time a cleaver was thrown at him and missed. In this way B.J. proves to himself that he exists. When Chin and Sarah leave the Asylum, B.J. comes along, doubting his existence and his perceptions.

From this point, early in the book, the action never stops. Chin, Sarah, and B.J. journey through a complex and fully-realized landscape in the territory around Seattle. They encounter many eccentric characters, and fall into and out of outre' situations with commendable narrative drive.

Dryly, with the understated humor which pervades the book, Fowler treats us to an interface of odd facts between sections of the book, such as the sighting of odd lights in the sky and on the ground in 1871, P.T. Barnum's reaction to the death of a giantess in his show, and the Victorian attitude on why God would create animals which were not good. Delightful in their own right, these bits of information anchor us in the social and stylistic milieu of the times and are thematically linked to the events in the book, as well as serving to further immerse us in the world of 1873. During calm moments in their adventures, Chin, B.J. and the others who

During calm moments in their adventures, Chin, B.J. and the others that join them along the way speculate as to who Sarah Canary might be, and the nature of her malady. She reminds Chin (at first) of his heritage as a member of a rich culture to whom goddesses appear. B.J. cannot--particularly at a crucial moment near the end of the book--look at Sarah, as he is unable to directly look at the fact of his own existence. To Adelaide, she is initially an admired compatriot and ally in the war against men. Harold, the survivor of Andersonville, considers himself immortal, and sees immortality in Sarah Canary.

But just who is she?

The evidence for any number of interpretations-- perceptions--lies within the text.

Perhaps Sarah Canary is a well-cared-for member of a wealthy family and has wandered off, a woman suffering from some sort of congenital problem or severe trauma with a subsequent psychological break.

A naturalist speculates that she may be a feral child--raised by wolves or other wild animals, forever impossible to civilize. In support of this theory, B.J. claims that Sarah Canary does not recognize herself in a mirror. But is kissing one's image necessarily a sign of non-recognition?

Or--and I believe that this begs the question, and is not at all necessary to the depth and scope of this book--she could be an alien who perhaps was deposited by a ship which may have appeared as " . . . a small but exceedingly bright point near the limits of the corona, just below the circle of the moon and in the general area of the anvil-shaped protuberance." Her dress, with its lack of fastenings, "mends itself," B.J. (a less-than-reliable narrator) notes.

I said earlier that the alien angle was an in-joke, analogous to Dickinson's own reasons for writing her poetry, a private world within the text which others may or may not see.

But it is not exactly a joke, because it rises to the surface and enhances our appreciation of the book as one which harbors many meanings with as much ease as Dickinson's poems, and in doing so reveals quite as much art and beauty.

And there is much art here. Leitmotifs echo throughout the book. Chin thinks, in the beginning of the book, "What good is one chopstick?" (Sarah Canary has confiscated one, and after all, she is not so crazy, because she puts it to good use as a weapon later). "What good is one wing?" he continues, and, "His uncle was speaking in straight lines. He was thinking in circles." Following Sarah's transformation at the end, Harold says, "Have you ever seen a butterfly that someone has helped out of the chrysalis? One good wing, to show what was supposed to be. And one wing that is twisted and folded and useless."

The enigmatic presence of Sarah Canary in their lives transforms each of the characters in fundamental ways. Chin "rejoiced in the straight, simple line his life had become." in the wake of his contact with Sarah Canary. He has, literally, been straightened out.

Is Sarah Canary an alien? The author says so [See Issue #10 of the SF EYE for an interview with Fowler]--and yet, she says, she does not want her interpretation of the work she herself wrote to impinge upon our interpretation of the text. Was Chin, when he saw for one instant after they met that she was dazzlingly beautiful, or Adelaide, mistaking her for a famous and admired criminal, witness to some alien survival shape-changing mechanism which mirrored their innermost thoughts, thus encouraging them to help the creature? Perhaps. Yet it is entirely as satisfying to think of Sarah as what she seems to be to them, eventually--an extraordinary and odd woman who needs to be placed in a protected environment. Anyone who has had any contact with emotionally disturbed children or people with various psychological problems, including schizophrenia, needs no romantic explanation at all. The parameters of human behavior are very, very large--certainly large enough to contain a Sarah Canary with ease. Thus it is entirely satisfying to think of Sarah as what she seems to be to her entourage--an extraordinary and odd woman who needs to be placed in a protected environment. As such, she serves as a powerful catalyst who reveals the characters to themselves.

Sarah Canary brings to light things in Chin, B.J., Harold, and Adelaide aspects of their lives with which they have never come to grips and moves them each, in their own way, to be extremely brave. Each character's contact with Sarah Canary strengthens their own alienness, their peculiar perceptual anomaly, until they blaze with it, finally unafraid.

Fowler has given us such a fine piece of work, one which manages to remain thoroughly entertaining in spite of the powerful and abstract nature of the subtext, that this is enough.

So does Sarah Canary's real identity matter? Is this playing fair?

It does not matter, because these characters are not the slightest bit at the mercy of an Idea. They are all individuals, disenfranchised from society, frequently represented in Sarah Canary by unruly mobs of drunken white men. In order to live, Chin must pretend to be invisible. Adelaide refuses to do so and revels in her notoriety. B.J. lives in a reality in which meaning is embedded in codes, which speaks to him directly ("Don't listen to it, Chin," he says on hearing a gunshot. "Guns always say that.") Harold believes himself immortal.

Sarah herself belongs nowhere at all. She is completely free, unbound by society's rules. "A bird with one wing," muses Chin at the beginning of the book, "would require an entirely different world to support it." Everyone tries to put Sarah in her place, whatever that may be; they fail, but are freed themselves.

The characters in the book are droll and delightful, and so well drawn that we are able to drop into their reality and see quite clearly how each extracts entirely different meaning from the same event. We are keenly reminded that perception is lovely, effervescent, and unique by the desperate, elliptical poems of Emily Dickinson. The relativity of perception is enchantingly underscored by the stories that Chin and B.J. are constantly exchanging.

It is playing fair, for we have a multiplicity of possible stories here, all of which ring true. We can do very well without an alien, yet it is there, too, plain as day from the beginning, if we but know the intent. As in Julio Cortazar's classic Hopscotch, a shift in vision--a shift in perception--yields new riches.

The ambiguity and emphasis on perception is what lies like a diamond at the core of this fine novel. As the book closes, Chin thinks, "A man says something. Sometimes it turns out to be the truth, but this has nothing to do with the man who says it. 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 vaguely 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."

Ms. Fowler has masterfully embedded her ideas about perception within a rousing, completely satisfying entertainment. The layers to this book are many, finely wrought, subtle, and beautifully timed. They play off one another internally; they glint and occasionally dazzle us with light which can only be from our recognition of ourselves in the mirror that is Sarah Canary.

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Last Update 11/10/98
Copyright 1991 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.