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

by Zachary Houle

11 January 2011


If Only We Had a Map...

What’s worse, though, is that Skibsrud’s narrative is completely confusing to the point of near-impenetrability. The novel starts out in Napoleon’s trailer in Fargo, North Dakota, and then we’re treated to a flashback involving his full family that takes place somewhere called Orono. Now, there’s an Orono in Maine, but there’s also a very small community east of Toronto with the same name. It’s only with a bit of surmising on the part of the reader that Skibsrud means Maine, though it is never named.

Then, Napoleon discovers his friend’s father lives only a four hour drive away from him. At this point, the Canadian reader might go, “huh?”, because Fargo is not a four hour drive away from eastern Ontario. (That drive would probably take a couple of days.) Maine does not seem to be a four hour drive away from eastern Ontario either, especially when you consider that it might take a bit of time to get through the Canada-US border. At this point, I personally had no idea where the story was taking place.

Things get progressively more confusing from there. The daughter is then wandering around a city with streets named Halifax, Division and Dominion. These are all Canadian-sounding place names, so I figured that the character was wandering around Halifax, Nova Scotia. It turns out a few pages later, however, that the daughter was living in New York. At this point, I was wishing that Skibsrud had included a map with the book, so that readers would be able to parse such a simple thing as the proper setting.

To be a bit more charitable, there is an interesting aspect to the novel, though Skibsrud sort of glosses it over. Casablanca, as fictitious as it may be, is based off of real-life eastern Ontario towns along the St. Lawrence River that had to be relocated circa 1959 to make way for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and its shipping lanes. In essence, entire villages were either moved or flooded over. To this day, there are old roads that lead right to the water’s edge and then are submerged underwater, and I believe there might be remnants of old buildings that must exist deep under the water’s surface, creating a sort of modern day Atlantis.

However, Skibsrud does nothing with this. Casablanca, for all intents and purposes, could be any old town anywhere in Ontario, really. She has, perhaps, an interesting metaphor for the submerged houses being a substitute of Napoleon’s deep memories of the war that he is a bit unwilling to share and remember, but the metaphor is just so fleeting, it’s almost as though it doesn’t exist in and of itself. It’s too bad, for there was a real missed opportunity here to plunge to a depth and richness that might have made The Sentimentalists a bit more engaging.

The novel does get a little more action-packed in its second half, which involves a recounting of an incident where American soldiers burned down a village and killed innocent civilians in Vietnam in 1967, but the narrative, once again, is jumbled and packed with incidental characters who only add confusion, not clarity. (Which might have been the point, but I digress.) This is also, naturally, where the book gets a little anti-American, which is par for the course in post-colonial Canadian fiction, and while that’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself, I’ve just seen this kind of thing crop up way too often in the Great White North’s fiction to be utterly effective, anymore.

By the end of The Sentimentalists, I had to exclaim to myself, “Really? This was the best Canadian book published during the eligibility period for the Giller?” While I’m happy that Skibsrud won the award for being so young – I have been told that being 35-years-old, as I currently am, is considered to be incredibly youthful for a fiction writer – the book does read like a novelist’s debut, and I can only hope that Skibsrud only matures as a wordsmith from here on out. Her writing style is so rarefied and poetic, which might be an appealing trait to the snooty and elitist, that it just comes at the expense of precision. It’s as though Skibsrud was in love with her writing as she penned this novel, though she does create moments of lyricism, which comes across in the following passage where a young Napoleon is saying goodbye to his father and mother before leaving for Vietnam:

How he extended his hand to his son, and how Napoleon had taken it, but limply, and then, after thinking for a moment, how the father had taken up the son very briefly in his arms in an attempt at an embrace. One that fell, however, so short of intimacy that for Napoleon the gesture rather emphasized instead of bridged the divide.

Still, Skibsrud’s use of language is just, to me, so over the top that I almost would have preferred that she wrote The Sentimentalists as a long-form poem. Clearly, this is a book that shoots for academia, which probably isn’t surprising considering that it came from there, and is just full of so many hallmarks of Can Lit that the entire book almost seems clichéd. Maybe that was appealing to those judging the Giller, but I can honestly point to better writers who have deserved, and failed to win, the prize in the past.

For example, Ann-Marie MacDonald wrote an amazing novel called Fall On Your Knees that was published in the mid-‘90s, and she lost to, wouldn’t you know?, Margaret Atwood. Also, the late Paul Quarrington wrote in his memoir Cigar Box Banjo that he fell into a funk when his 2008 book The Ravine failed to make the Giller shortlist. To me, that book is one of the best things to come out of Canada since poutine, and I fail to understand why it didn’t even make the shortlist, let alone win. Maybe because it was populist, funny, profound and littered with pop cultural references? You know, the kind of stuff that Canadians would want to actually read.

All in all, I’m trying to find something nice to say about The Sentimentalists and all I can think of is that it is, indeed, a novel that lives up to its title. It’s also, thankfully, a short read. And that’s about it.

The Sentimentalists represents a lost opportunity by wrapping itself in the tropes of old-style Canadian Literature, and a lost opportunity for the Giller to pick a book that’s truly progressive and, you know, urban. There still is lots of time in front of Skibsrud to hone her craft and write something truly compelling.

I’m not so sure about the Giller Prize. It’s been around for 16 years, and it, by and large, seems to pick the most tear-inducing boring books as the best that a country has to offer. While Skibsrud’s future still is yet to be written, I can say in all honesty that 2010 might be the year that I finally stopped caring who won the Giller Prize. In the end, the following might be the most controversial thing that might have happened to the award during this annum: an interested reader tuning out of the work being produced in his own back yard.

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