zondag 26 maart 2017

"Sarah Canary" by Karen Joy Fowler

"It was a mystery. She was just there suddenly, talking to someone, maybe to him, maybe to herself. Her speech had no meaning he could discern."

1873. In a Chinese labour camp in the Washington Territories, a mysterious woman appears out of nowhere. She wails, moans and speaks in an incomprehensible language and everyone is baffled by her appearance. She's given the name Sarah Canary, because 'she sings like an angel'.
Young Chin is ordered to escort her out of the camp and the pair end up in an insane asylum, where they team up with B.J. (a brilliant character). Sarah is then taken away by one Harold, who exhibits her as the 'Alaskan Wild Woman' in a freak show. When Harold tries to rape her, she flees, along with Adelaide Dixon, a feminist.

At times, this is very funny book, but it also raises a lot of  profound issues and that makes it very moving as well. I quite enjoyed reading it, but at the same time I never felt that I really knew what I was reading. It reads like an account of the fortunes and misfortunes of a couple of very diverse characters, but then there's this strange and mysterious Sarah Canary, who doesn't really do much in the novel, but means something else to each character. The author never reveals quite who or what she really is. Is she a ghost, an angel, an alien or just a woman who is insane? Feminism, immigrants, the treatment of people who are 'different' (Indians, the insane, 'freaks',...) are clearly issues that the writer wants to focus on.

It makes for a strange reading experience, as you never know what kind of book you're reading; yes, it's possible to see this as science fiction, fantasy, magical realism or indeed just a historical novel. Making this book part of the SF Masterworks series kind of makes up your mind for you, but it would be a pity to just stick to this interpretation. The strength of the novel lies exactly in the mystery it provides, not in the solution. It's a very literary novel - it is a deceptively easy read, but at the same time it shows a lot of depth and it makes you think.

Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Title: Sarah Canary
Publisher: Gollancz, London
Year: 2012 (orig. 1991)
Number of pages: 301 p.
ISBN: 9780575131361

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