The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud. Winner of the 2010 Giller Prize.
From the inside flap: “Napoleon Haskell served in the Vietnam War, where he witnessed events which had a profound and complicated impact on his life and the lives of his family. As his health ultimately declines, his daughters move him from his trailer in North Dakota to the lakeside town of Casablanca, Ontario, to live with Henry – father of Napoleon’s friend Owen who was killed in action in Vietnam. When her own life comes unhinged, Napoleon’s daughter retreats to Casablanca as well, and is soon drawn into the shadowy stories that lurk below the surface of her life – like the ghostly buildings of the former town lying somewhere beneath the flooded lake.”
I really, really wanted to love this book. For one thing, it’s published by local heroes, Gaspereau Press. For another, it won the Giller. And for another, it’s Skibsrud’s first novel – imagine your first novel winning the Giller. Amazing.
But. I didn’t love it.
While there’s no denying Skibsrud has the knack for quiet, poetic, dreamlike prose, I sometimes found it a bit hard to take. Like when I didn’t know what the hell was going on, say. The story spans about four decades (I think – it’s kind of hard to tell) and during certain scenes I wasn’t sure where along that timeline the events were taking place. To make the insufficient detail even more annoying, her sentences tend to be long, descriptive mazes of feeling and sensation that left me thinking, huh? Wha? So I’d re-read them. And occasionally still wouldn’t get it.
Another criticism is the utter lack of interest I felt in any of the characters. Napoleon – father, Vietnam vet and cancer patient – is the most finely drawn of the characters and even that isn’t saying a lot. I felt like I barely knew the guy, which one could argue is simply a way of conveying his detachment from his family, but I didn’t feel like I knew any of the other characters, either. There were oblique references to happenings in their lives (the narrator leaves her fiance, for example, and her sister leaves her husband), but we hear nothing more than the barest minimum. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name.
The overall theme of hidden truths, as represented by the submerged town, is a promising one and my interest was briefly piqued at the beginning of the Vietnam section, during which Napoleon tells his war story for the first time. For a short while, the pace picks up a little and it seems like things are finally about to happen, but then it’s all lost again in vague, hazy half-recollections that left me more frustrated than intrigued. Napoleon’s experiences in Vietnam could have been incredibly moving, but instead we’re left with vague, confusing images and, at the end of the book, a transcript of Napoleon’s court appearance that didn’t do much to reveal how he felt about any of it. I was thankful for the transcript, though, since it was the only point at which I had a handle on what was happening. And even then, it went on a bit long.
So, overall opinion? Despite all my complaints, I can see how some readers would love The Sentimentalists. It’s subtle and thoughtful and filled with powerful imagery; there are certain lines I read over and over in appreciation for their beauty. But (and I have a big but – heh), I learned from reading it that I have a strong desire for in-depth character development and a compelling plot. I want interesting people doing interesting things at a rate quick enough to keep me, um…interested. In my opinion, The Sentimentalists didn’t quite make the cut.