If there is one thing that is obvious from Karen Joy Fowler’s work to date, it is that she is interested in books and how they work. The Jane Austen Book Club, for which she is chiefly known (it spent quite some time on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a movie in 2007) engages with the modern romance genre and with science fiction as well as with Austen’s novels. The Case of the Imaginary Detective, also published as Wit’s End, is a crime novel about crime novels. Sarah Canary, her first book, seems to change genre with each person who discusses it.
What I Didn’t See is a collection of Karen Joy Fowler’s short stories, the first such collection since 1997’s Black Glass. Most of the stories in this collection have been published elsewhere, with the oldest (“The Dark”) first published in 1991 and the most recent (“Halfway People”) in 2010. So it’s unsurprising that they don’t immediately form a unified collection. However, while it would be reductive to say that literature is Fowler’s subject, this is a frequently recurring thread that is useful to hang on to.
The title story, “What I Didn’t See”, was published in 2002. This story about a group of people on a gorilla hunt in the 1920s does not on the surface show allegiance to any particular genre. Despite this it won a Nebula award in 2003. While not visibly SFnal in itself, the story is in conversation with one of the great short stories of the genre, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See”. Tiptree’s story is about alienation, both with regard to race and (primarily) gender and to actual aliens. Fowler’s narrator, unlike Tiptree’s, is a woman who becomes in part complicit in the unseeing of women.
“The Halfway People”, “The Dark” and “King Rat” all engage with fairytale or folkloric elements. “The Halfway People”, first published in a collection of fairytale retellings titled My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, plays off the fairytale of the six swan brothers. In the Grimm brothers’ story, the brothers are turned into swans by a curse which is eventually broken when their sister weaves shirts for them. The youngest brother, whose shirt was left incomplete, has a swan’s wing for an arm. Fowler locates the fairytale in the mouth of a woman who loved this youngest brother, and makes of his story a bedtime tale for her son.
“The Dark” manages to combine a history of plague, the Vietnam war and feral children into a disturbing story which also contains references to the Pied Piper of Hamlin. “King Rat” is a simpler piece in which the narrator remembers a friend of her family, yet again the story of the Pied Piper and his attendant lost children lurks in the background.
“Booth’s Ghost” appears here for the first time. This is a story about the family of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Lincoln. Edwin Booth’s acting career is dogged by his brother’s crime, and he is equally haunted by the ghost of his father – so iconic an actor of Hamlet as to make it almost impossible for Edwin to play the role. Besides the Shakespeare connection “Booth’s Ghost” is in conversation with another text in the same book; “Standing Room Only” tells the events leading up to Lincoln’s death through the eyes of a young girl with a crush on John Wilkes Booth.
The intertextual nature of most of these stories adds depth and can be stimulating, yet most of the stories could probably stand quite well without it. Fowler is marvellous at evoking beauty and strangeness, and her narrators are odd enough to be real. The central character of “Private Grave 9”, a photographer at an archaeological dig competing with Howard Carter’s, stands out here. And the teenaged characters who appear in many of the stories are among her strongest voices.
Family also plays a major role in the collection. It can be a source of happiness and comfort, as in “The Marianas Islands” in which the young narrator explains the family history that led to her owning a submarine of her own. Family here is an unmitigatedly good thing; as the narrator says “the first thing you need to know is where you are”. In most of the stories, however, the family plays a more ambiguous role.
“The Last Worders” is a story about a town obsessed with poetry and a river that doesn’t exist. But it is also the story of a long-standing and uncomfortable rivalry between two sisters (and here again we have a fairytale staple) over a man they could both love. “The Pelican Bar” chronicles years of torture meted out to a girl who is sent to a horrific reform school by parents who never see her again. Parents are unreliable; the terrified child narrator of “King Rat” seeks out her father for protection and finds him annoyed with her. The parents of a pregnant girl in “Familiar Birds” force her to carry her child to term and put him up for adoption. In “Always”, a story about immortality in a cult of sorts, there’s the impression that the narrator is trying to escape a stepfather who “was drinking again” and a mother whose life “would have been so much better without me”. In “Standing Room Only” Anna’s discovery of her mother’s plot with John Wilkes Booth comes across as a betrayal.
And there are the lost children. They form the focus of the last story, “King Rat”, but really they are all over this book. From Norah in “The Pelican Bar” whose parents remain unaware that they have lost her to Paul in “The Dark” to the adopted child in “Familiar Birds”. The final passage of “King Rat” (and therefore the book) feels as if it were coming from Fowler herself; nothing could be more appropriate than that a collection so aware of stories should end by commenting on itself:
I hate this story. Vidkun, for your long-ago gifts, I return now two things. The first is that I will not change this ending. This is your story. No magic, no clever rescue, no final twist. As long as you can’t pretend otherwise, neither will I. And then, because you once bought me a book with no such stories in it, the second thing I promise is not to write this one again. The older I get, the more I want a happy ending. Never again will I write about a child who disappears forever. All my pipers will have soft voices and gentle manners. No child so lost King Rat can’t find him and bring him home.
What I Didn’t See is dark and often painful to read. Yet it’s also honest and weird and lovely. It has all the lightness of touch that you’d expect from someone who has spent so long dancing around the boundaries of genre.