Monday, November 15, 2010

*The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

Gaspereau Press Limited, 2009
218 pp.

The Sentimentalists is not a long book, but within its 200+ pages, the author examines the relationship between fathers and daughters as well as friendship and the often intangible and little-understood consequences of war. However, the main theme that carries through all of these topics is the imperfection and frailty of memory -- and the role played by the passage of time and circumstance in how and what we remember.

The basic story follows the narrator, a woman whose father can no longer live on his own.  She and her sister take him from his Fargo, North Dakota home, a structure "pieced together from two and a half aluminum trailers and deposited in a lot" to the home of Henry, the father of Owen, a childhood friend, in a small town called Casablanca in Ontario, "just twenty miles from the border of New York."  This little town was where the family spent many summer vacations when the narrator and her sister were children, and the group referred to Henry's residence as the "government house," after the flooding of his boyhood home caused by the course of the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s.  In the present, for reasons of her own, the narrator/daughter has come back to Casablanca to stay with her father, where she attempts to gain some understanding of this man about whom she knows so little -- a man whose complicated and unspoken past in Vietnam interrupted the lives of his family, and who spent years trying to connect back to a more simple, less complicated past and the dreams that were part of it.

The first half of the novel is the basis for the main story, which doesn't really appear until about just past the halfway point of the book, at which point things began to get really interesting. In the meantime, there were several paragraphs scattered throughout the novel that made me have to stop, put the book down, and take some time to parse and mull over what I'd just read. After doing this way too often and getting frustrated at the lack of narrative flow this created for me, it dawned on me that I was seeing the poet rather than narrative writer in Skibsrud, especially in the ways she often opted for a more metaphorical bent:
Overall, I would have to say that it had come as a disappointment to live within the particularities of a life; to find that the simple arithmetic of things -- which I thought I had learned by rote, but was now unsure from whom, or what is was that had been learned at all was not so simple. That it was not, in fact, combination alone that increased the territory of living in the world. And that love did not, of its own accord, increase with time...And that there was nothing to do when it left you but bite your tongue and wait for its return. As though it were a small bird, which sometimes thought to wing itself across the city -- but would, almost always, thinking better of it, arrive again in a rush, to the sill. Oh, I would have waited like a dog for seven lifetimes for that bird to appear, if I knew that it would continue to come!  If I knew that it would continue to look in again with fondness at the small room, which it had thought to leave behind; at a life of knowing; of closeness, and foibles. Of regrets, misdeeds, and small, personal ecstasies.
This is not to say that I didn't like this book -- because I did, especially the last part. It's not that I don't appreciate the beauty of the English language in the hands of talented authors, because I do,  but I think this book would be most fully appreciated by an audience inclined to the more complex aspects of the writing craft, quite possibly by people who are writers themselves.  As for me, although I always ponder whatever it is I'm reading at the moment, sometimes the reading process in this case was just a bit more work than it needed to be, although I will say that toward the end of the novel, things picked up and became a little more straightforward, using less of the detail that tended to bog down the first half of the novel in parts and less effluvient language. One thing that still puzzles me is that I'm still not sure exactly why the author chose to set up the epilogue of the book the way she did -- it was quite an abrupt change -- but it is what it is. If anyone has figured it out, maybe you can clue me in.

Overall -- it's a fine first novel, sometimes a bit bogged down with what I would consider superfluous detail and metaphor, but one still worth the time you put into it, and one I'd recommend.   


I consider myself quite fortunate to have bought my copy early on in the book's lifetime (drawn in by the Vietnam aspect of the novel) before Amazon sellers brought the prices up exorbitantly.  Now, as it turns out, there's going to be another run to help keep up with the demand (from today's issue of Shelf Awareness): 

Douglas & McIntyre is publishing a trade paperback version of Scotia Giller Prize-winner The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud, which has been in short supply since it won the award last Tuesday. Gaspereau Press, the novel's publisher, prints and binds its books in-house, a process that cannot keep up with demand for The Sentimentalists. The first printing was 800, which is sold out, and the second printing of 2,300 is spoken for....Douglas & McIntyre plans to ship 30,000 copies of the new edition of the book by this Friday, November 19, from printer Friesens in Manitoba. Another printing of 20,000 will follow immediately. The book will be priced at $19.95.

The article goes on to say that the book is already available on the Kobo e-reader, and that Douglas & McIntyre is also planning to make it available for other e-reader formats as well.  So for those of you waiting, it shouldn't be too long.  


  1. Sounds like a really premise for a book - I enjoyed reading your review of it having never heard of it before. I don't think I wil rush out and buy it but I will keep my eye out for it if the chance presents itself to get a copy.

    I sometimes find that there are books which I greatly admire for the skill of the writing, but at the same time that writing prevents me from accessing the story as much as I would like

  2. exactly! Kind of like my wordy book reviews!


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.