The Sentimentalists
by Johanna Skibsrud (2009)
Gaspereau Press (2009)
224 pp

Fourth stop on the Giller shortlist. Only Annabel left. As a quick reminder, I really enjoyed Alexander MacLeod’s short story collection Light Lifting, but I didn’t really like the last two. To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for The Sentimentalists, which, as a paperback with a sturdy dust jacket and filled with high quality paper, is certainly the most attractively produced book on the shortlist. I think I had low expectations because it is — as you can see on the cover — a war novel, and perhaps I thought a young poet couldn’t pull it off in her debut novel. When I began this book, though, I was quickly pulled into its strange rhythm. I started it fairly late in the evening, stayed up way too late reading, and finished it as quickly as I could the next day.

I was surprised when, for the first 100 pages or so, war was barely mentioned. The story, instead, follows the narrator, a woman in her thirties, as she thinks back a few years to when they moved her father from Fargo, North Dakota to a place called Casablanca, a town next to Lake St. Lawrence, Ontario. Casablanca is a new town, created when the old town was flooded to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. (You may remember that this was a topic in last year’s Giller finalist, The Winter Vault.)

The narrator is also thinking back to her childhood, when her parents were still together. Her mother used to suffer from severe attacks of melancholy and was terrified to lose control. The mind, in this book, is not that reliable:

Of the event she would make only a small note in the journal she kept in which to record our lives: another episode today, she would write. Followed by a record, as near as she could render, of the last thing that she had thought of or seen before the exquisite pain had begun. Tomato plant. Obscure memory of Aunt Rose.

In this way my mother attempted to uncover a pattern or system to her grief, but there never did appear to be one, and the pain continued to erupt equally from the sight of an old photograph as from an untwinned sock. But after each entry my mother would go on to conclude: it should not happen again. And this conviction — that unhappiness, in herself and later in her children, should be staved off, then eliminated entirely — originated from that same source within her that assured her that the progress that my father was making on his boat, and that my mother was making on my father, and that my father’s words were making on her heart, would be measurable and lasting things, upon which each of us could build.

The mind and memories, and the fallability of each, is the central topic of the book. Also central is a look at some tragedies in life that can cause the pain and which, for whatever reason, cannot be forgotten though memory cannot be relied on. In this way, the lost village, with its houses and roads under water, becomes a nice and subtle symbol of the past and of memory.

We must have known, and then ignored for lack of real evidence, that Henry, and a few others that we saw regularly around the lake, could still remember that original town. That they perhaps even felt that it was to the old rather than to the new that they more fully belonged. But because they hardly spoke of it, they did not interrupt our dreaming, and perhaps were even instrumental in leading me, at that age, to the false presumption that a thing could, quite simply, be forgot.

As I said above, I really enjoyed Skibrud’s set up of the book and its themes. Her writing, at times, complements her themes. It is a segmented style, replete with commas and interjections that seem to question whether the sentence is really saying what it purports to be saying. I liked to think of it as looking at the buried village through choppy water. Most of the time this choppiness, while it doesn’t make for quick reading, does not create a messy sentence. I had to slow down at times to catch what was going on, but usually that was enough — and pleasurable. However, there were times when I had to reread a sentence several times just to understand how each clause fit together. This next sentence, I think, is an example of just how far Skibsrud takes this segmenting style. It is an extreme example, but if you don’t like it (and I admit it is a little too obfuscating for my liking), then you will probably be frustrated by this book:

And so it was because Henry himself did not speak of the house that he would have built, or of Jacqui again, that it was Owen’s grandfather who told him of his mother, painting her picture alongside his own wife’s ghost, so that the two women came to live for Owen side by side. It was startling the way that things could, in the end, come to exist like that, within the same small space, when they had seemed in life, to need, necessarily, to exist for themselves alone.

I get the sentence now, but I’m not convinced it couldn’t have been cleaned up just a bit — a few too many prepositional phrases and long constructions — while still maintaining the sketchy narration I found effective in other parts.

Now, I have not mentioned the war yet, and the war is the central event of the last half of the book. Sadly, the book didn’t hold me at the end as it did at the beginning. I was less interested in the war (Vietnam) than I was in the relationship between the daughter and her father after the war. For years she didn’t even know he’d been to war, and she still doesn’t know much about his time there. What she does know, she doesn’t know for sure — something awful happened and her father was part of it. There are many conflicting accounts, perhaps all of them wrong, surely none of them exactly right. On the surface, the narrator is still trying to get to know her father through the murky waters that have covered the years, but the conflicting accounts take control of the narrative — I just wasn’t as interested in that aspect.

Still, it is too bad this book has been ignored for almost a year. It is too bad that, even though it is a Giller finalist, it will probably still be neglected. It might not be perfect, but it is very worthwhile.

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