Karen Joy Fowler's first novel was Sarah Canary, and this well recognized work was added to the list of Science Fiction Masterworks just last year. I left one spot open on my list of authors for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge, and upon discovering the setting of this book, it was added to the final slot.
First off, there are editions of this book with a foreword or an epilog, and reviews a plenty warning not to read either. The Plume trade paperback edition seems to lack both, at least by that name, and besides has a nice easy typeface.
Mechanically the book has Roman numeral sections with bits of relevant history. Each sets the tone for the few numbered chapters that follow - an introduction to the action, as it were. Most are set in my own state, what was Washington Territory at the time. The facts in these sections are rarely brought back into play later in the book, giving this novel an episodic feel.
The points of view are of the various characters or an omniscient narrator; never of Sarah Canary herself. Each of these characters has a different view of the world, and a little of that comes across in their internal representation of what is happening. The one thing they have in common is their alienation from the mainstream.
Chin and Sarah are introduced at the beginning of the story; the two other characters join up with them one at a time. Other reviews have compared this novel to the Wizard of Oz, but I find the similarities go no further than these staggered meetings. The characters have no common goal, in fact BJ (who escaped from an asylum) has no real goal and the suffragette Miss Dixon's goal changes half way through. Finally, Sarah never speaks, and her goal is completely unexpressed.
Karen Joy Fowler has said that her "intention was that the book would read like a science fiction novel to a science fiction reader, and that it would read like a mainstream novel to a mainstream reader." As a member of the former camp, I felt the novel had a very mainstream, historical feel. There were a few bits that indicate either science fiction or fantasy, or even a dreamlike shared insanity. As Ms. Fowler put it herself, "Who Sarah Canary is, is not the point of the book."
I really enjoyed the different voices and perspectives, but the episodic layout gave the book a rambling feel. It wasn't a slow read, but I had to drag myself back to it at times. I rate it 3½ stars.