Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 1

October 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The Sentimentalists. Johanna Skibsrud; $27.95 paper 978-1-55447-078-5, 224 pp., Gaspereau Press.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Gerald Lampert Memorial Award (Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, nominee)

From the publisher: “Drawing on her own experience as a war veteran’s daughter, Skibsrud’s novel captures the rich complexities encountered by a woman who desires to comprehend and frankly express the truth – in all its fragility – of her life and of the lives of her family.”

From reviews: “Like a lot of debut novels, The Sentimentalists can sometimes feel like a stumbling colt, with moments of astounding raw beauty and original wordplay. Conversely, there are moments the prose forgets to balance on its new legs.” – Zoe Whittall, The Globe and Mail

My reaction: “To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and others.” So claimed the poet Keith Douglas, who was killed in Normandy in 1944. He was 24 years old when he died. Douglas’s poem, “Remember Me,” provides the fulcrum for Johanna Skibsrud’s novel, which deals with war in another context: the war in Vietnam, as remembered by the narrator’s father, who served overseas. Skibsrud’s recourse to Douglas highlights one of her novel’s abiding ironies: the distance between the veteran Napoleon Hill’s caustic, disillusioned worldview, and that of his more sheltered daughter. The daughter’s attempt to understand her father’s experience – his alcoholism, his haunted aspect, his gruffness, all of which have something to do with witnessing his best friend Owen’s death in combat – serves as the novel’s narrative arc, such as it is.

Douglas’s poem appears about two-thirds of the way in, during a conversation featuring Napoleon, his daughter, and Henry, Owen’s father:

“Remember me when I am dead,” my father said, “and simplify me when I am dead.”

He paused, then asked us, beaming: “Who said that? Where did it come from?” He’d opened his eyes again, and began looking back and forth between Henry and I, enthusiastically, as if we were contestants and he was the game-show host.

“Sounds like poetry,” Henry said.

I nodded agreement. “The words of a rank sentimentalist.”

The narrator’s assessment, one with which the poet himself would no doubt disagree, underscores the emotional gulf between her and Napoleon: sentimentalism is a movable feast depending upon one’s starting point.

But if it is possible to argue Douglas’s own sentimentalism, it is clear that Skisbrud herself gives in to a sentimentalizing tendency in her novel. This is apparent in passages that are frankly overwritten: purple prose standing in for a more direct examination of her characters. Witness, for example, the narrator’s small epiphany regarding the “unknown region” of experience that she claims to be chasing:

Is it only now, through aggravation at the continued frustration of my attempts, or is it an accidental wisdom that somehow I’ve acquired? Which leads me finally to believe that the small estuaries to which I have been blown are just as true as the rest, and that the deep and open and still untried waters have been left uncharted because they do not in fact exist at all; except, that is, in the magic lantern pictures of my mind where they are just a simple shadow-play of death, which someday, and far too soon, will have us all freely sailing there.

Or, elsewhere:

A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before. When, in that very room, I had harboured in me an expectation of a world so vast, and of such an incomparable beauty, that I could feel it loosening the muscles of my throat; a disturbance of which I could hardly endure.

Such passages are often forced to carry the narration, resulting in a distancing effect between the novel and its reader. The farther the narrator retreats into the labyrinth of her own mind, the less interesting the story becomes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second half of the novel, which dramatizes Napoleon’s experience in Vietnam, is less prone to this tendency. Nevertheless, Skibsrud never allows her reader to forget the essential writerliness inherent in the novel: this appears everywhere from Napoleon’s frankly militaristic name to the pervading pattern of water metaphors in the book (which will no doubt serve as the subject of a master’s thesis one day). The sunken town beneath the flooded lake alongside which Napoleon and Henry now reside reflects the narrator’s sublimated identity and her shifting idea of home, but it is also an overwrought metaphor that is not fully integrated into the text.

The Sentimentalists is a heavily ruminative novel, one that is easier to admire than to like. Its subjects – war, family, home – are most compelling when viewed head on; when filtered through the refined sensibility of the first-person narrator, they become gauzy, abstract, and, yes, sentimental.

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