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Johanna Skibsrud wrote The Sentimentalists for her thesis at Concordia University. She lives in Montreal. (W.W. Norton & Co.)

'The Sentimentalists': Submerged Emotions Surface

May 26, 2011 (Fresh Air)

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The Sentimentalists

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This is the kind of novel that the traditional publishing industry isn't supposed to have room for any longer: a slim debut novel graced by inventive language and a haunting atmosphere. In other words, a novel that, if it's lucky, can be estimated to attract maybe 15 readers outside of the author's family. But Johanna Skibsrud's novel, The Sentimentalists, has already had more than its share of first-time work of fiction luck. In addition to getting picked up by Norton, it's been blurbed by the serious likes of Claire Messud, and has won what's billed as Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Who knew?)

I can see why The Sentimentalists has broken out from the anonymous MFA novel pack. For all the ways that The Sentimentalists feels a bit belabored — its imagery too insistent with meaning — the melancholy mood and restrained language of the story settles deep into a reader's consciousness. At one point, the primary narrator of the novel sadly observes that "the possibilities of a life, it seemed, were small." That line is already firmly wedged into the wrinkle of my brain filled with quotes from Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker comebacks.

The situation of The Sentimentalists is this: A sagging alcoholic Vietnam vet named Napoleon Haskell is moved by his two adult daughters from the trailer he's been living in in Fargo, N.D., to a house on the shores of a lake in Ontario. The house is owned by a family friend named Henry, who is the father of Napoleon's Marine Corps buddy, killed in the war. This is no swanky vacation lodge, however. Henry's house is referred to as "the government house" because it was paid for by the government after his original farmhouse and surrounding fields were flooded by an engineering project. The lake that Henry, Napoleon, and Napoleon's daughters like to boat on is a manmade watery shroud for the town of Casablanca, Ontario, that was deliberately drowned by fiat.

The Sentimentalists takes its cue from the image of that creepy lake: It's a novel that is obsessed with feelings and events long submerged and only now half discerned. There's the "pearl-sized lump" that is discovered, just in time, on Napoleon's elder daughter's ovary. Then, there are the hidden emotional revelations. Our unnamed narrator, Napoleon's younger daughter, eventually confesses that she has the leisure for an extended stay with her dying father because her fiance back in Brooklyn has cheated on her. It was not a grand passion, which, paradoxically, makes the split even sadder. And after the breakup, she diagnoses the state of things:

"I had thought ... having learned the lesson from my [divorced] mother, that it was foolish to ask for too much out of life. ... But what pain, I thought now, could be greater than to realize that even the practical reality for which you had assumed to settle upon, did not hold — that even that was illusory? Would it not be better then, to set your sights on some more fantastic and rare dream from which even in failing you might take some comfort in having once aspired?"

As you can see, the language of The Sentimentalists is thoughtful, slightly ornate — which, to me, is one of the pleasures of this novel. Napoleon is one of those spottily educated, working-class guys who likes to declaim from what his daughter characterizes as a "secret store of poetry and song lyrics, and movie quotations." Those random poetic lines — along with a steady infusion of beer — help keep Napoleon's personal nightmares of history at bay, though the last third of The Sentimentalists is an extended flashback to Vietnam. This ending section is much more direct — even callous — than the preceding chapters. Again, the lake waters that blanket the sharp fences and steeples of the drowned town of Casablanca are invoked: The oblique opening of The Sentimentalists doesn't prepare a reader for what lies beneath.

The Sentimentalists, as I've said, is a little heavy-handed, but if you're willing to pay that price of admission, it distinctly summons up a world out of time — one where a father and daughter get to sit over crossword puzzles and cans of beer and stale sandwiches as they contemplate the mysteries that they are to each other. For the rare dad, it could be a good Father's Day gift; though I think it's a better fit for all you daughter-readers out there who are still trying to figure the Old Man out.

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