Review: The Sentimentalists — Johanna Skibsrud

Read: 69
To Go: 31

Book List:
61. The Very Thought of You — Rosie Alison
62. Possession — A.S. Byatt
63. Maine — J. Courtney Sullivan
64. Winnie the Pooh — A.A. Milne
65. Brokeback Mountain — Annie Proulx
66. 44 Charles Street — Danielle Steel
67. The Perfect Gentleman — Imran Ahmad
68. And Laughter Fell from the Sky — Jyotsna Sreenivasan
69. The Sentimentalists — Johanna Skibsrud

Haunted by the vivid horrors of the Vietnam War, exhausted from years spent battling his memories, Napoleon Haskell leaves his North Dakota trailer and moves to Canada.

He retreats to a small Ontario town where Henry, the father of his fallen Vietnam comrade, has a home on the shore of a manmade lake. Under the water is the wreckage of what was once the town — and the home where Henry was raised.

When Napoleon’s daughter arrive, fleeing troubles of her own, she finds her father in the twilight of his life, and rapidly slipping into senility. With love and insatiable curiosity, she devotes herself to learning the truth about his life; and through the fog, Napoleon’s past begins to emerge.

I wish I was as smart as this book. I’ve been wanting to read it for some time now, and I finally got it for sale at the BMV, and when I read it I loved it. But I also feel like there’s clearly a metaphor or theme — having to do with sunken memories, man-made lakes, and boats — in The Sentimentalists that I can see but can’t grasp, and it makes me feel inadequate as a reader and a “reviewer.”

Having said that, though, I thought the book was gorgeous — specifically, the writing. Johanna Skibsrud has such a distinctive, lyrical way of writing, and I feel like I could recognize it right away. She is not afraid of the comma, and I admire that.

I also loved Napoleon, seen through the filter of his daughter’s memories and perceptions. His attempts (and, often, failures) to connect to the people who mattered to him, after years of living a bizarre, isolated life were heartbreaking. One paragraph, early into the novel, really caught me and stuck with me for days:

“Somehow, though, long after we had turned away, a phantom faith remained in me, long after its object had been lost. It came in bursts, in brief hallucinatory flashes, like the intermittent blinking of a dead satellite which still rouses itself on faulty wiring as though it were a dying star. So that even in those after-years, when my father had disappeared completely beyond the line of our horizon, it seemed as though, on fine days, I could see him still — a faint outline, a trace of himself — buoyed by the stubbornness of my memory, walking tentatively along the endless and otherwise uninhabited waters of my childhood.” (Skibsrud 21)

Two final notes: I can’t decide whether I’m glad that Skibsrud leaves the reader with the final mystery of what really happened to Henry’s son, or if I feel cheated by it. Though I usually like a clean ending, I’m inclined toward the former. And I want to leave off on another one of my favourite passages:

“It’s funny, isn’t it? The way that we always position ourselves at the centre of our own stories, and that even from some distance — even relegated to the third person and, from the present tense at least two times removed, we continue to imagine ourselves in that way.” (93)

Next book: Not sure yet. You’ll know when I know!

– Kelsey

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