Sarah Canary is a wonderfully deceptive book. The title suggests biography or a single life rendered in fiction, but Sarah Canary is something of a Maltese Falcon, a mystery and a catalyst for action in others. Sarah Canary is the woman in black, sometimes glimpsed but seldom seen, an inkblot that looks very much like something we recognize.
The book follows Chin, a Chinese railway worker, who follows Sarah through the fog shrouded Pacific Northwest of the 1870s. This is not a straightforward journey but Karen Joy Fowler has a fine sense of pace, creating a story that moves and a set of characters and circumstances that fascinate. Fowler rejoices in odd details but rather than being digressions that slow the action, these facts are like bits of a broken mirror unexpectedly reflecting light just when and where it's needed.
In a prison Chin befriends a killer and in an asylum in Steilacoom he and Sarah are aided in their escape by a lunatic named B.J. Lunatic, of course, is a relative term and B.J.'s counsel and considerations are often the wisest words in any given situation.
This is a book of action, filled with chase scenes, grifters, men with schemes, women with dreams. This is a fine book, rewarding the reader not with a simple solution but a reminder that the world is complicated, barely glimpsed and best journeyed through with perseverance and a few good friends. I count certain books as friends and Sarah Canary is one of the very best.