Review: The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

>>Published: October 2009

>>Finally got around to it: January 2011

The talk of the publishing world. The darling about town from the little press that could. Such is the weight that Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel has been saddled with since its unexpected Giller win back in November 2010. Against what some guessed were sure bets—Light Lifting and Annabel immediately spring to mind—this hand-crafted, small print run title surprised everybody, taking home the largest prize in the Canadian publishing industry.

I managed to snag a copy of this, conveniently and to my surprise given its limited availability, almost immediately after the Giller win, but, like Franzen’s Freedom, I just wasn’t able to sink into it right away. The hype—the countless stories and baseless debates about whether or not her publisher, Gaspereau Press, could handle the suddenly atmospheric demand of the title—was practically deafening, and in the face of that much noise, I kept my distance. If this book was everything the Giller claimed it to be, I wanted to go into it with a clear head.

So.

It’s always best to lead off on a high note, and I can’t think of any better place to begin than the book’s amazing look and feel. This was my first Gaspereau book—after seeing the rather unfortunate D&M redesign, I was thankful for my luck—and their reputations as aesthetes is immediately apparent. From the thick, textured cover stock adorned with a lovely graphite etching, to the little stylistic flourishes speckled throughout the interior, there is no doubt to the publisher’s commitment to producing a book that is meant to be bought, valued, and passed on to another, rather than being unceremoniously discarded or treated with ambivalence. Gaspereau’s eye for aesthetic detail is seldom seen in an industry that is all too often required to strike a very fine balance between form, functionality and cost.

You’ll notice I’ve refrained from talking about the text itself. There’s a reason for that.

Hype. It’s unavoidable.

I felt like I had given myself more than enough time to let the shadow of the Giller victory wash away from the book’s surface, hopefully allowing me to enjoy as I would any other title—with little to no preconceptions. As I read, I found this to be almost impossible.

The story, told from the perspective of a nameless narrator, tells the tale of a husband, father, and war veteran, Napoleon Haskell, as he moves from Fargo, North Dakota, to a fictional Ontario town, eclectically named Casablanca. There, we’re treated to a third-person account of Haskell’s life—his failings as a husband and father to two girls, the long friendship he has cultivated with the father of a comrade in arms lost in the Vietnam War, and yes, his time in the war itself. The strength of this story rests on the shoulders of the narrator’s relationship to not only her father, but also to the father of the young man lost to mysterious circumstances while in Vietnam. As her life is met with rather sudden and unpredictable change, she seeks to learn more about why her father is the man that she has come to know. The story itself is not the problem—it’s how it has been served.

Skibsrud is a poet first, and that is more than obvious in the deliberate layering of the text into almost labyrinthine series of ever more delicate (and arrhythmic) curlycues. She employs an almost obsessive compulsive amount of commas and dashes—so much so that sentences and entire paragraphs wind themselves into circuitous thoughts that are seldom resolved. The result of this, unfortunately, is a book that struggles to say so very little by saying more than it ever should—and somehow, in the process, says almost nothing at all.

Reading The Sentimentalists, I was repeatedly jostled out of the experience by such a seemingly deliberate lack of rhythm. Each time that happened—and sadly, it was more than a few times—I found myself inadvertently thinking back to the one thing I was trying to forget: This book, this gorgeous little identity-crisis of loving, minimalist design and confounding, over-complicated sentence structure, took home the most prestigious prize in Canadian publishing.

Did I hate the book? No, not at all. There were several places where the little sparks in the relationship between Haskell and his unnamed narrator daughter were genuinely moving, and I quite enjoyed the sudden starkness and break from form that the interrogation provided. However, the simplicity of the back-and-forth interrogation was such a departure from what had come before that it only seemed to heighten the frustration I felt towards the rest of the book.

The Sentimentalists is a lovingly produced book, and very unique, but I couldn’t help but feel, as I was reading, how desperately in need of a strong editorial hand it was. While some may cry out that I’m calling for the book to be lobotomized in favour of pandering to the easy-reading public, I would counter by saying that I found the poetic, lyrical trappings of the narrative as nothing more that a method for masking the writer’s insecurities. It was as if she was fearful of presenting a concrete thought or idea, one way or another. The result of that is a book that has left a slightly sour taste in my mouth, as if I’ve been shown a portrait of a once-young man through the divided white space of a crossword puzzle.

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