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Book review: Johanna Skibsrud's "The Sentimentalists"

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The Scotiabank Giller Prize is Canada's premiere award for fiction written in English. This year's winning novel is set in a small Ontario town along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Betsy Kepes has this review of The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Napoleon Haskell is a Vietnam vet dying of lung cancer. For most of his adult life he’s been a drunken wanderer, but he allows his two daughters to drive him from his trailer home in Fargo, North Dakota to Casablanca, a fictional small town in Ontario. At Casablanca he can stay in his friend Henry’s “ government house” on the edge of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and he’ll only be two hours away from the Veterans Clinic in Massena.

Napoleon’s youngest daughter narrates The Sentimentalists, a novel filled with pain and disaster, but also humor and love. Skibsrud writes in short, non-linear sections and most of her sentences are so long they would take ages to record for the radio. Reading this book was a pleasant challenge as I tried to fit the pieces together and discover what Napoleon is not saying about his years in Vietnam. When his daughters were young, his exasperated wife had said, “The war can’t explain you forever, you know." But it seems that it has.

The drowned town of Casablanca exists as a character in this book. The narrator and Henry often go fishing, steering the boat over the old foundations, dropping lines in where the old roads plunge into the water. The narrator says:

When I was younger, and we had come to Henry’s house alone in those solitary summers of my father’s disappearance, I had imagined that the past really existed, semi-submerged, in Henry’s backyard. Wouldn’t that be enough for anyone? I’d thought. To explain that certain sadness, which I identified sometimes in him. A sadness that would make you, when you saw it, want to pull the edges of your own life up around you, and stay there, carefully, inside.

Halfway through the book the setting switches from the lakeside “government house” in Ontario to the steamy bewildering landscape of Vietnam. Skibsrud’s writing is extremely vivid here, the best in the book, with longer sections of unbroken prose.  Napoleon remembers a massacre, when his unit “wiped out” a Viet Cong village. The details keep shifting as Napoleon disappears into an alcohol and morphine induced haze, but it seems he may also have witnessed the murder of a friend and fellow soldier. Officially Owen died in battle, and his father, Henry, has the papers that say this in his desk at the house in Casablanca.

The narrator wants to know the truth but her father dismisses her questions, saying “women think they can make sad things go away by knowing the reason that they happened.”

And the daughter writes, “I did believe that, I guess…. Believed, I suppose, that if there was a precise reason that I could get hold of to explain why Henry, and both of my parents ended up so very much alone, that I could prevent, for myself, an equivalent loneliness.”

The Sentimentalists is not easy to read, but it is worth the effort. Sometimes after I’d managed to untangle a long, complicated paragraph, I marveled at its beauty and meaning. Come to this novel looking for the truth and leave knowing that truth pauses, “almost imperceptibly, and for only so long, before continuing on, in its uncountable directions.”

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