“[Giller] judges said the novel “charts the painful search by a dutiful daughter to learn – and more importantly to learn to understand – the multi-layered truth which lies at the moral core of her dying father’s life”.” wrote The Guardian newspaper. “They described the writing as “trip-wire taut” in its exploration of guilt, family and duty.” The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud was the winner of the 2010 Giller Prize for fiction.
Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel connects the flooding of an Ontario town, the Vietnam War, a trailer in North Dakota and an unfinished boat in Maine. Parsing family history, worn childhood memories, and the palimpsest of old misunderstandings, Skibsrud’s narrator maps her father’s past.
Napoleon Haskell lives with Henry in the town of Casablanca, Ontario, on the shores of a man-made lake beneath which lie the remains of the former town. Henry is the father of Napoleon’s friend Owen, who died fighting in Vietnam. When her life comes apart, Napoleon’s daughter retreats to Casablanca and is soon immersed in the complicated family stories that lurk below the surface of everyday life. With its quiet mullings and lines from Bogart, The Sentimentalists captures a daughter’s wrestling with a heady family mythology.
From the publisher, Gaspereau Press
The story of The Sentimentalists‘ rise to fame is incredible, and part of the reason I wanted to like the novel. It was released by a small regional publisher who hand-prints all their books. The initial print run for Skibsrud’s novel was a mere 800 copies, and then she became the youngest author to win the Scotiabank Giller Prize and no one could find a copy of the book. (There were a number of debates online and in traditional media regarding the availability vs. the integrity of the finished item.) The ebook was climbing on Kobo’s bestseller list, so Gaspereau made a quick deal with Douglas & McIntyre (a medium-sized publisher here in Vancouver) to have them do the paperback run of 30,000.
However, I wanted very much to like The Sentimentalists but the truth is that I just had trouble getting into it and truly caring about the characters. The writing itself was thoughtful, poetic, and beautiful; but the story and the delivery left much to be desired for me. Certain scenes that include major plot points (narrator leaves her husband) has only mere clues and illusions, while other parts of the novel go on for long chunks describing the thoughts and feelings of the narrator as she watches a ripple in the lake.
There were points where I was honestly intrigued, and hoped the novel would pick up, but then it seemed to peter out into quiet reflection again. My biggest pet peeve is that we never even learn the narrator’s name. I don’t want to harp on about what I didn’t enjoy, but I feel exactly the same as Lori from Short & Snappy wrote in her review.
I think the Winnipeg Review‘s article described the book perfectly: “[Skibsrud’s] 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.”