For The Oregonian/OregonLive, Jim Carmin
Who knew canaries were taught songs? Who knew there were serinettes, which when cranked by hand, that taught new melodies to London Fancys, Yorkshire Spangles, Norwich Yellows, the Greens, the Cinnamons, and others? Who, for the matter, knew there were so many kinds of canaries?
Laura Stanfill, a Portland writer and publisher, has obviously discovered that her charming debut novel, ", ", focuses on a French serinette manufacturer founded in 19th century. She has a long tradition of craft, music, and family.
In the French village of Mireville, our story and this is how Stanfill presents her story is recounted with moments of fantasy and lots of moving parts and characters. Henri Blanchard, a third-generation serinette manufacturer, follows his father (Georges) and grandfather (who we know only as Monsieur) in their instrument-making experiments.
Stanfill gives us the important back story first. Everyone in Mireville was affected by Georges' birth. As Georges was a clumsy baby, Monsieur developed an early dislike for his son because his constant crying made it difficult to correct the serinette. On a grander scale, when Georges stopped crying the sun appeared over the village where it had always rained.
Since the beginning, Georges was considered by grateful farmers as having a great ability and becoming forever known as the Sun-Bringer. Despite this mystical skill, Georges narrated much of his family as he went to New York City to deliver a large amount of serinettes to a wealthy client. At the last moment, Monsieur insisted that Georges go to America alone, which he did.
Georges' life changed drastically after meeting Mrs. Delia, whose marriage was less than ideal, and focused most of her attention on her canaries and songs. This was the first time that Georges heard canaries, and he felt honored by Delia and with his father's permission. After an unexpected romantic coupling Georges suddenly returned to France.
Here's how our story begins: Back in Mireville, Georges marries his sweetheart and soon they have a son whom they call Henri. Henri grows up with a group of friends and life is good until one day he discovers a cache of notes hidden by his father, which suggests that Henri has an American half-brother. Many instances ensue after this including a mysterious murder, which resulting in Henri being imprisoned, later free
Stanfill's lyrical phrasing sings alongside the musical lines that fill these pages (Henri was not a grace note at all, but the music of his life), and creates a narrative that engages and entertains the reader. Her words are stunning and fit the story well.
Yet no novel is perfect. In "Stylish Canary," one wonders how the characters appear to be so little affected by their day's historical events (war, revolutions, and cholera outbreaks) and some events are farfetched (how could Henri's friends break him out of jail without consequence?).
Stanfill's debut is a delight as it circles around family, friendships, and the choices we make. In "Singing Lessons for the Stylish Canary," indulgences will find a lot to appreciate, but in these dark times, joy is worth seeking out.
At 7 p.m. April 21 at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., Laura Stanfill presents "Singing Lessons for the Stylish Canary."