21. ‘What I Didn’t See and Other Stories’ by Karen Joy Fowler

When I read a short story collection, there are typically one or two stories that truly stand out for me. Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See and Other Stories is the first time where I would rank nearly all of the stories as favorites. There were a couple that I wouldn’t rank as highly as the others, but they were still quite brilliant. I was familiar with Fowler from her phenomenal novel The Jane Austen Book Club. However, this little collection truly showcases Fowler’s storytelling range as many of the selections defy falling into one specific genre. The ease with which she merges the real with the fantastic has instantly propelled her up on my list of favorite authors. The title short story “What I Didn’t See” is the perfect title for the overarching theme of this book as it deals with those viewpoints and details that we might miss at first glance.


The opening story “The Pelican Bar” perfectly sets the tone. A rebellious teenager is sent away to a sadistic reformation camp for troubled girls. Abandoned by her family, she is treated cruelly and is constantly being reminded of just how flawed she is. Often, it appears as though she is close to losing her sanity. The only motivation she has is this idea of this lush tropical restaurant known as The Pelican Bar. We never learn the identity of the girl’s captors, but instead are left examining our own selves and the cruelty we are capable of inflicting on each other. As one of her tormentors says at the end, “Humans do everything we did. Humans do more.” What I love most about this story, as well as all of the ones that follow, is that it requires time after reading to fully let your mind digest its meaning. This is not a collection of stories one should just burn through quickly. In fact, I had to go back and reread several of these stories a second time.

Karen Joy Fowler’s stories are all highly intelligent and thought-provoking. They often deal with scientific and historical themes (or both), and many start from those ‘what if’ ideas that I love. Her fascination with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is explored in not just one but two stories. “Booth’s Ghost” tells the tale of Edwin, the actor brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth. Not only does this story provide an interesting take on how this tragic historic event affects Booth’s family, but there are even some supernatural elements in it. Fowler manages to make the fantastic appear quite normal through grounding it in the background to give more emphasis to the story’s more human elements.”Standing Room Only” tells the story of the moments leading up to the assassination from the point-of-view of Annie, a girl that is deeply in love with John Wilkes Booth. Her infatuation runs so deep that she doesn’t see the events that are about to unfold.

Often Fowler takes inspiration from multiple genres, bending them to her will. One of my favorites “Halfway People” is a great retelling of a classic fairy tale. As someone who loves modernized versions of fairy tales, this one was right up my alley. Fowler also borrows from horror, mystery, and even folklore. All of these stories share a common thread in the ease in which they are told. Fowler often feels like some stranger you meet on a train who narrates these bizarre tales that are disturbing yet comfortable. The Marianas Islands” is the perfect example of this, as if the narrator is a distant relative relating old family tales that on one hand seem impossible but on the other just might be strange enough to be true.

Of course, one of the biggest draws for me was the title story “What I Didn’t See.” This story generated a lot of controversy for winning the Nebula award on the grounds that it didn’t contain elements of science fiction or fantasy. What is needed for a story to fall under these genres? It brings to mind the debate a few years back on whether Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant should be considered a fantasy novel. As I researched this story online, I learned about the inspiration behind its creation. In 1920, a museum curator organized an expedition in which one of the ideas was for a woman to be in attendance. The reasoning was that if a woman could hunt and kill a gorilla, then these animals would no longer be viewed as fearsome, thus would be left alone. In my humble opinion, Fowler’s story does deserve the award. As with other works in the collection, it is important to remember that the fantastic elements are used as a vehicle to allow us to see the rawness of real life. If that’s not deserving an award, well then I don’t know what is.

I could say something positive about each and every gem in this collection. I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the closing story “King Rat.” Probably the closest we will get to an autobiography of the author, she relates how an important childhood experience put her on her writing path. This all too brief story explains how both science and fantasy influenced the author Fowler would become. It is also extremely touching.

I can’t praise this collection enough. Like Kelly Link, Fowler uses the strange as a way to illuminate the normal. Science fiction and fantasy are used as ingredients in recipes that works. Take my advice and give yourself breaks between stories. Let each one marinate in your mind for a while before moving on. It makes for a far richer experience.

“But a story never told is also a danger, particularly to the people in it.”-“Halfway People”

Any thoughts on this book or this blog? Comments below are always welcome!







2 thoughts on “21. ‘What I Didn’t See and Other Stories’ by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. Pingback: Ten Summer Beach Reads – I Would Rather Be Reading

  2. Pingback: Book Awards 2017 – I Would Rather Be Reading

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