'The Sentimentalists' Is a Novel That Lives Up to Its Title

by Zachary Houle

11 January 2011

The Sentimentalists has all of the hallmarks of a book published in Canada circa 1972, full of purple prose, a seemingly anti-American tract, and a classic rural setting, aka: Can-Lit.
cover art

The Sentimentalists

Johanna Skibsrud

(Douglas & McIntyre / Gaspereau Press)
US: Nov 2010

Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel The Sentimentalists has been grabbing headlines in Canada, for both good and bad reasons. The good is that, this past November, Skibsrud won the $40,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which has the richest purse of all awards in Canadian letters, and became the youngest recipient of the award at age 30 in the 16 years that the award has been handed out. Not bad for a writer who came out of nowhere, whose work was associated with the tiny Nova Scotia-based Gaspereau Press after being rejected by major publishing houses, and who wrote the book as her thesis paper for Concordia University’s creative writing program in Montreal.

The bad? Well, that gets a bit complicated. First of all, the novel was originally published in 2009 by the aforementioned Gaspereau Press, which still makes its books in old-fashioned, hand-bound ways. After the award was announced, the indie publisher made it known that it was only willing to produce the book with the greatest attention to antiquated detail and care, meaning that it would put out just 1,000 copies of The Sentimentalists at a maximum per week. (The book’s initial print run was 800 books.) This essentially would have meant that the novel would have been kept out of reach for curious Canadian book buyers, as demand would have obviously outstripped supply. Indeed, after the award was handed out, the largest bookselling chain in the country, Chapters-Indigo, didn’t even have a single copy of The Sentimentalists in stock.

This pronouncement drove up the price of the novel on Amazon, though it also caused a bit of a spike in e-book purchases. Still, for a few days it seemed that Gaspereau Press was willing to sell its author up the river by making her work out-of-print for most readers by not being able to keep up with general interest. Thankfully, Gaspereau was able to make a deal with the much larger Douglas & McIntyre publishing house, who was willing to publish 30,000 trade paperback copies of the book within a period of a week or so (with enough paper on stock for another 20,000 copies).

To put those numbers into perspective, a Canadian book is considered a bestseller in its home country if it has sold 5,000 copies during its entire publishing run. In the end, Skibsrud wound up in a win-win situation: not only would her book find a captive audience through the massive trade paperback run, becoming a best-seller six times over in the process, but Gaspereau would be able to continue to produce the novel in limited quantities for what could be termed an audience of, basically, book collectors. 

However, the controversy didn’t end there. In the days after the award was handed out, it was reported in the Canadian media that one of the Giller Prize’s three jurors, British novelist Ali Smith, had praised The Sentimentalists to a friend who happened to be a literary agent, who was then able to secure foreign publishing rights to the book – Skibsrud had been an unagented writer at the time. As a result, The Sentimentalists is now expected to appear in Europe sometime in the spring of 2011. This would be seemingly good news for the once-struggling Skibsrud; however, the problem was that Smith had made the accolade before the winner of the prize had been announced. Clearly, this did not look good, and raised all sorts of spectres of potential nepotism and impartial judging of the book.

You have to wonder if Smith was playing taste-maker, taking a hereto obscure writer and seeking to propel her to literary stardom by both making an acclamation to her literary circle friends, and wrangling other jurors to select this book for a major literary award. Talking publically about the books under selection was a definite no-no, and it has cast a bit of a pall on The Sentimentalists, suggesting that it is merely an example of an underdog that had been almost prodded and groomed through an award’s selection process to be a well-performing literary sensation.

In fact, all of the hype has taken some of the limelight away from The Sentimentalists as a piece of literature, as though the book has been all but forgotten about due to the controversies surrounding its publication and selection for the Giller Prize. Well, I hate to admit this, but the hoopla surrounding the novel is, in fact, more interesting that what’s between its covers. The Sentimentalists is, indeed, a sentimental book, recalling the writing style of Canada’s two famous literary Margarets – that would be Atwood and Laurence – and is ensconced in the tradition of old-style Canadian Literature. It has all of the hallmarks of a book published in Canada circa 1972, full of purple prose (courtesy of Skibsrud’s start as a published poet), a seemingly anti-American tract, and a classic rural setting, despite the fact that culturally speaking Canada is now, by and large, comprised of urban communities. All of these traits are so in abundance in old-school Canadian Literature, that anything new that follows that way of writing is bound to be considered stodgy by default.

In fact, The Sentimentalists reminds me of the boring Canadian crud like The Stone Angel that they made us read in high school English classes, akin to the excitement of eating a bowl of bran cereal without any milk. It’s little wonder that this book got rejected from Canada’s major publishing houses in the first go-round. How this book won a major literary award in Canada is honestly beyond me, excepting for the obvious realization that the book jurors, particularly Smith, might have been hoping to create the equivalent of the book world’s Pitchfork effect, so they could then take all of the credit for “discovering” a new writer.

The Sentimentalists, essentially, has a thread-bare plot. It involves a drunken and morphine-addicted Vietnam War vet named Napoleon Haskell (and we don’t learn his first name until some 50-odd pages into the book – there’s a “literary” move for you), who decides to leave his trailer in Fargo, North Dakota and head north to the obviously fictitious eastern Ontario, Canada, small town of, get this, Casablanca. (And, yes, Skibsrud has her characters make the obvious Bogart impersonations through her work.) There, he moves in with the father of a dead war comrade.

Then, Napoleon’s daughter decides to move in, too, fleeing from a man who was sleeping around on her. Then, Napoleon begrudgingly begins to talk about his wartime experiences to the daughter, whom in turn seeks to gain a better understanding of her father, and why he’s turned out to be such a buffoon in his life, which is nearing its final days as he suffers from some unknown illness. Then… he dies. The end.

It’s interesting to note that the male protagonist is a bit of a jerk, for I took a film studies class in university where we had to read an article, written in the early-‘70s, positing that Canadian male film characters were either bullies, buffoons or clowns – and that there seemed to be no way out of that general characterization of men based on the overwhelming evidence that the author was able to argue in favour of. Even though Skibsrud is writing semi-autobiographically here – her own father was a Vietnam War vet and died in 2008 – I have to wonder if she read that same article, because she’s got the character of an unlovable, clueless Canadian moron right down to a T.

For one, Napoleon tries to build a boat, but never gets around to finishing it. He tries to kick alcohol, then finds himself downing more than half of a two-four case of beer while cooped up with his friend’s father. Before moving up to Canada, and we’re never clear exactly why he makes that move, he’s essentially trailer trash (though very well read trailer trash). It’s hard to really find much that is remarkable about Napoleon, and perhaps that’s the point of the book.

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