‘The Sentimentalists’ by Johanna Skibsrud

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Alison Gillmor

The publishing story is sensational: Johanna Skibsrud's debut novel, The Sentimentalists, was published by Gaspereau Press, a small regional publishing house, in an initial print run of 800 exquisite hand-printed books. Then Skibsrud became the youngest author to win the prestigious Giller Prize, and no one could get hold of her novel. The newspapers and the blogosphere lit up with debates about integrity vs. access and the competing needs of readers, publishers, the author and the Giller Foundation. Meanwhile, the title climbed up the Kobo e-book bestseller list, and Gaspereau brokered an eleventh-hour trade-paperback deal with Vancouver's Douglas & McIntyre. Editors and designers pulled all-nighters and rushed the thing into a 30,000-volume print-run, which was expedited by Friesens, the Altona, Manitoba-based printing company.

Of course, that gap between notoriety and availability meant that readers wanted the book even more. The Sentimentalists became a Canadian bestseller.

This is a blockbuster backstory for such a slow, wilfully quiet novel. The 30-year-old Skibsrud, a Nova Scotia native now based in Montreal, writes about buried historical trauma, the kind of Big Subject that often gets made into attention-grabbing books. But her process of unearthing that trauma - a military atrocity committed during the Vietnam war - is deliberately undramatic. There is no ratcheted suspense, no big reveal, no obvious redemptive arc. The Sentimentalists is a delicate, difficult read that diffuses into a little hard-won knowledge and a lot of sadness.

The novel begins as the nameless narrator and her sister, Helen, move their father, Vietnam vet Napoleon Haskell, from his aluminum trailer in North Dakota to the Canadian home of Henry Carey. Henry lives in Casablanca, Ontario, the doppelganger of an older town that was flooded by a dam project and now lies under a manmade lake, and he's haunted by its ghosts and by the loss of his son Owen, who fought with Napoleon in Vietnam and was killed, though the circumstances of his death remain unspoken for most of the novel.

In fact, many things remain unspoken in The Sentimentalists. The narrator is such an odd combination of eloquence and reticence that it takes a while to notice how much she withholds about her own life. She touches, with a kind of wondering detachment, on the pain that sees her leaving an apartment and a relationship in New York City and coming to room with Henry and her father. But her suffering is soon overtaken by Napoleon's. Now ill with cancer, loosened up by senility or the prospect of death or maybe the morphine, he finally breaks his habit of silence and talks about the war.

The book is based partly on the stories of Skibsrud’s father, who served in Vietnam, but it doesn’t feel like a memoir. The narrator walks around her father's experiences cautiously - it’s actually only at the novel's half-way point that we get to the core horror, and even then the first pass is oblique. A later transcript of official testimony looks, at a distance, like a wrap-up, but on closer inspection raises disquieting questions.

The novel is more about the daughter's experience of her father's experience. Skibsrud is scrupulous about the unknowability of other people's lives, about the difficulty children have in coming to understand their parents' histories. As a child, the narrator holds the belief that "a thing could, quite simply, be forgot," but through her father's testament and through his death, she comes to a fuller comprehension of the persistence of memory, especially as it moves through the generations. The narrator's unhappiness seems to take the comparatively mild form of many peacetime problems - she suffers from disappointment, a vague rootlessness, the notion that "it was foolish to ask for too much out of life." It is founded, nonetheless, in her father's wartime experiences, and the way they transmuted into his long disappearances during her childhood, into the breakdown of her family, into the dislocation and disconnection that seem to characterize so many modern North American lives.

Skibsrud has published three books of poetry, and that background shows in her debut novel. She's not much interested in nuts-and-bolts narrative. Practical details about the narrator, her mother and sister, Henry and Napoleon, are purposely sketchy. She concentrates instead on inner states, often expressed in lovely, convoluted, Jamesian phrasing. ("On these occasions," the narrator writes of her first days at Henry's, "what I had feared most was only that the space I felt in me so palpably then might remain all my life in that unbearably empty state in which it had arrived. So to find that, on the contrary, it could disappear completely - and without a trace - without ever having been filled; that it could be compressed so soundly within a body that inside would remain only the mechanical procedures of the lungs and of the heart, was a great surprise.")

Sometimes her impulse toward the abstract is too much. In particular, the submerged town and the boat that Napoleon has been compulsively constructing since before his children were born seem like unnecessary metaphors. But mostly, and happily, the poetic quality of Skibsrud's prose is channeled into precision and compression. She pulls off brief, startling moments of apprehension, and captures objects and actions in vivid images (a woman "wringing clothes out in the sink as though strangling a goose," the narrator hearing a scream "which rose to meet me as though in a single spiral").

Skibsrud also cuts her lyricism with downright, deadpan Canadian humour. Napoleon's dialogue is brusque, funny, often cheerfully drunken. Skibsrud not only has an ear for slangy, seemingly offhand talk; she also understands the way it can contain complicated family dynamics. The title term comes up just once, after Napoleon quotes a stringently unsentimental poem by Keith Douglas, a British poet of World War II who was killed at Normandy. "The words of a rank sentimentalist,” the narrator jokes, a reference to Casablanca, the film that shares a name with their town. Napoleon, emptied out by the horrors of his war, and the narrator, similarly distanced from her own life, often prefer to talk in unanchored quotations. They find in Bogart and his bruised idealism a way to speak to each other.

Communication is hard for these characters. "It was something very particular I wanted to say," the narrator thinks at one point, "it was just that I had no way to say it." Skibsrud is unsparing about the unreliability of memory and the difficulties of language; she is wary "of the great and always ill-fitting imposition of meaning on form." But her book is an affirmation of why we still try -- why we still use words to reclaim history, to imagine another's pain, to hold onto what is human in the face of violence and chaos. The Sentimentalists may be profoundly sad, but Skibsrud also reminds us that sadness is not the same as hopelessness.

Douglas & McIntyre |  224 pages | paper | $19.95 | ISBN 978-1553658955

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor is a Winnipeg journalist who has written on art, architecture, film and books for The Walrus, The Globe & Mail, Border Crossings, Canada's History and CBC Arts Online. She is a pop culture columnist for theWinnipeg Free Press and the movie reviewer for CBC's Information Radio.

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