Review: The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

I was enthralled by the hype and drawn to this book because it gained great attention as the Scotiabank Giller Prize winner. I love the Cinderella story: though an accomplished poet, this is Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel.

The Sentimentalists is a story narrated by an unnamed “I”, a daughter who, in one sharp revelation, decides to leave her life behind and move to a small Ontario town to live with her father, Napoleon, and an elderly man named Henry. This is a story of familial love, war and the pain of long-buried truths as the narrator comes to learn more about her father, to see him perhaps for the first time as a whole person, and to finally hear about his experiences in the Vietnam war. Henry, the reader comes to discover, is the father of Napoleon’s fallen war buddy and it is perhaps this link that the daughter is most curious to unravel.

I began this story with the expectation that it would be spectacular but not necessarily thoroughly engaging. Could a story with such bare bones plot structure (really a premise) deliver with ongoing entertainment? Yes. I was hooked and devoured this novel in only a few sittings.

This is a beautifully written novel, obviously the work of a poet. It is perhaps the way the words construct such a riveting and vivid portrait of the narrator and her interactions with her father that held the most engagement for me. Skibsrud’s words constructed vivid images out of astounding metaphors and lovely word play. But this lyricism is absolutely backed with a story structure. There are knots to unravel and new ties to form, questions that linger after certain passages like, why is Napoleon elusive about his war experience? What happened in Vietnam? Why is Napoleon drawn to Henry? What bond unites these two men who share the loss of Owen, Henry’s son, Napoleon’s comrade? In what is likely a weak effort to emulate the book’s stunning imagery, I will write: reading this book was like sinking into a deep bath of warm water; a delight for the senses.

This book had a profound effect on me; as I wrote about here. There was something transformative in the story of the narrator who left her life behind, on a whim one day, and moved in with her father and Henry. A deeper bond, that would lend more meaning to life, was sought. It is the kind of meaning I myself am searching for; possibly that we all search for. Something to substantiate the everyday experiences that need to add up to more than just “living”. “I” found in exploring her roots, the revelations of her father’s final storytelling, a greater sense of who she was, a greater sense of what she wanted, or so I believe.

I love the word “haunted” which opens the novel’s description, found on the book jacket. Napoleon was haunted by his memories. Perhaps the narrator was haunted by the lack of fulfillment she intuitively detected in her life. I think we are all haunted by something. But The Sentimentalists raises many questions, the story does not necessarily resolve itself fully. What it does is open a door to the way in which truth and memory is constructed and the profound implications lived experience has on the future of our own course and those whose lives we share.

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